7 Things to Know About Catnip

Cats really seem to enjoy it, but why do cats like catnip?

tabby cat standing on rocks outdoors next to a blooming catnip plant

peplow / Getty Images

Catnip is an herb that has an animated effect on most cats. For cats that are sensitive to the plant, just a sniff will put them in a state of euphoria for around 10 minutes. Fresh or dried catnip can cause adult cats to behave like kittens — rolling on the floor and playing with toys. But only around two-thirds of kitties are affected by catnip.

Everyone has a weakness. For most cats, it’s catnip. Here are seven things every cat lover should know about this mysterious plant that drives cats batty.

1. Catnip Is a Perennial Plant

A member of the mint family, catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb that grows throughout the United States. The plant features small, white and  lavender flowers and jagged, heart-shaped leaves that smell faintly of mint. Cats are drawn to the scent of the catnip plant and some enjoy chewing on the leaves.

The plant grows to a height of two to three feet, and will spread easily if not contained.  In colder regions, catnip plants die back in the winter and return in the spring.

wild catnip plant in bloom with lavender flowers

ruhrpix / Getty Images

2. It’s Easy to Grow

Cat lovers who possess a green thumb can grow catnip from seed after the last hard frost of the season. Catnip grows best in a sunny location and doesn’t require much maintenance. As a perennial, this herbaceous flowering plant will return each year with proper care. 

Keep in mind that catnip requires plenty of room to grow and flourish, much like most felines. Once it grows, you will have the most popular house in the neighborhood — at least among the feline population.

3. Catnip Triggers Chemical Reactions in Cats’ Brains

The active ingredients in catnip that cause playful, energetic reactions in cats are called nepetalactones. Catnip is one of the plants in the genus Nepeta that naturally produces nepetalactones. The colorless oils of the plant also act as an insect repellant. 

Believed to mimic pheromones, smelling catnip leaves or dried catnip can trigger chemicals in a cat’s brain that can lead to bouts of energetic euphoria or laid-back laziness.

dried catnip in a white bowl on a bamboo placemat

Torring / Getty Images

4. Catnip Is Safe for Cats in Small Doses

Most cats really enjoy catnip, but because it can have some negative side effects, it’s best offered in small amounts. While generally safe, too much catnip can cause bouts of vomiting and diarrhea and excessive drooling. Once cats get a whiff of catnip, it’s hard to get them to stop, so put catnip and catnip-laced toys in an airtight container or out of your cat’s reach after use.  

While catnip isn’t harmful to younger cats, indulging in too much can also cause an upset stomach in kittens.

5. Catnip Sensitivity Is Hereditary

Not all cats respond to catnip. Approximately two-thirds of domestic cats have the inherited sensitivity to catnip. After smelling catnip, cats that have the trait respond by sniffing, licking, biting, and rubbing the catnip or catnip-laced toy. The effects of catnip usually last for around 10 minutes.

Kittens younger than three to six months don’t usually react to catnip so you won’t know if your kitten has the sensitivity prior to that age.

6. Some People Drink Catnip Tea

Some believe that catnip is an effective herbal remedy for headaches and insomnia in humans. While there is a history of catnip being used for these purposes, there is not conclusive scientific evidence about these effects. For some people, catnip may induce sleep, while in others, it has a stimulative effect. In addition, just as in cats, too much catnip can cause vomiting in humans.

7. Anise Is Like Catnip for Dogs

Dogs have their own form of catnip: anise. The extract of anise seeds is often used in treats; but just like cats with catnip, not all dogs react to the herb. Because some dogs respond strongly to the scent, anise has historically been used to train dogs in scent work. Anise seed should only be offered to dogs in small amounts. Too much anise seed can cause gastrointestinal problems and a reduced heart rate. Check with your vet before offering anise seed to your dog.

Why Pets Matters to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our cats and their behaviors, the better we can support and protect their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.

View Article Sources
  1. Lichman, B., Godden, G., Hamilton, J., Palmer, L., Kamileen, M., Zhao, D., Vaillancourt, B., Wood, J., Sun, M., Kinser, T., Henry, L., Rodriguez-Lopez, C., Dudareva, N., Soltis, D., Soltis, P., Buell, C. and O’Connor, S., 2020. The evolutionary origins of the cat attractant nepetalactone in catnipScience Advances, 6(20). doi:10.1126/sciadv.aba0721

  2. The Humane Society of the United States. n.d. Crazy for catnip. [online].