To humans, catnip is just a fragrant herb, but to cats, it's the source of much entertainment. There's nothing like watching a feline racing back and forth and rolling in catnip. But why are cats so enthralled with this mysterious plant? We'll discuss what catnip is, why cats react to it, and the science that's behind this curious feline obsession.
The Root of the Behavior
True to its nickname "catmint," catnip is a relative of the mint family and has a chemical composition that closely mimicks valerian. Catnip has psychoactive properties for many species of felines, including big cats like tigers and lions. The chemical nepetalactone is responsible for catnip's neurological effects, resulting in an energetic or mellow "high." Studies show that catnip affects felines' opiate receptors, which are responsible for the release of feel-good endorphins.
Cats sniff, roll in, and eat catnip, but there are some interesting reasons behind these behaviors. Ingesting catnip seems to offer cats a more relaxing effect, whereas smelling and rolling in it makes them excited and playful. Some scientists suspect that rolling in catnip is a learned mechanism to fend off biting insects like mosquitos. Could it be that cats' love for catnip is an evolutionary result of its protection against mosquitoes? The jury's still out, but what we do know is that cats adore the stuff.
Encouraging the Behavior
Catnip comes in many forms, from the typical dried variety to catnip wine and bubbles. Yes, you read that right — there is such thing as catnip wine. But no worries; it's alcohol-free. Catnip toys are probably your best bet when trying to encourage cats to like catnip.
Most cats love to play, so associating catnip with playtime will surely make them learn to love it. Catnip mice are the cheapest and most accessible catnip toys. Simply toss one to your cat or drag it along the floor by its "tail" — your cat will do the rest!
You can also make your own catnip toy for nearly nothing. All you'll need is an old sock, polyester stuffing, some string, and a stick. Simply pack the sock with catnip and the stuffing and then tie it off on the open end. Tie the string to the sock's knotted end and attach the opposite end of the string to a stick. Lure your kitty around with the toy by dragging it along the ground. Your kitty is sure to pounce on this toy like it's their prey!
Catnip bubble blow is another fun way to introduce catnip to an unsure kitty. It works just like a regular bubble blow. Blow some bubbles in your cat's direction and encourage them to swat at them. If you have a scratching post, try adding some catnip to that. This can also encourage using the post rather than them sharpening their claws on furniture and walls.
Other Solutions and Considerations
If you live in a multi-cat household, you may notice that not all cats respond the same way to catnip. This is because the ability to feel catnip's psychoactive properties relies on a certain hereditary gene. One study found that 1 in 3 of the cats of the study group had no reaction to the nepetalactone in catnip. Since catnip reactivity is genetic, some cats will be indifferent to it no matter how you introduce it.
It's important to mention that catnip doesn't affect most felines under 12 weeks old. Some cats reach adolescence before they even begin to respond to this herb.
Large doses of catnip can cause tummy aches and diarrhea in felines, but it's unlikely cats will ingest enough to cause a reaction. Experts state that cats are good at self-regulating how much catnip they consume since it becomes ineffective after a certain amount of time. The effects of catnip only last 10 to 30 minutes, and after that, the cat becomes "immune" to its effects for a period of time.
Whether it's the psychoactive properties or its insect-repelling abilities, most cats love catnip. This aromatic herb is completely safe and even helpful for felines. With that being said, not all cats approve of catnip.
A cat's genetic makeup greatly influences whether or not they respond to — or even like — catnip. Age also plays a role in whether or not a cat reacts to catnip. So if your kitten shows no interest in catnip, know that's completely normal. While catnip is indeed safe, large amounts of it can spell stomach troubles for felines, though this is usually nothing to worry about since cats rarely ingest more than they need to feel its effects.
Curious to learn more about catnip? Check out the truth about catnip: how to use it and what you should know.