Catnip: The Herb That Strips Cats of Their Dignity

June 15th is World Catnip Awareness Day.  The catnip herb is an infamous topic for feline lovers.  There’s something that makes a cat owner want to see their cat go insane and act like a drunkard, and catnip is usually the answer.  My cats act like fools when I give them dried catnip leaf. Who doesn’t want video evidence that their cat’s supposed respectability is just a sham?  But catnip does not work on all cats.

So, what is catnip? Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb native to southern Europe and Asia.  This article refers specifically to N. Cataria, though “catnip” also refers to a group of Nepeta plants.  As part of the mint family, Lamiaceae, it is a pungent and fragrant plant.  It makes pretty flowers and some people grow it for that reason like many other mints, but when it comes to cats, the leaves are the part to be interested in.

A cute yellow Thai cat happy with Catnip

The thing that makes cats bonkers is a terpenoid compound called nepetalactone.  

Other more familiar terpenoids include the menthol found in:

  • peppermint
  • citral in lemons
  • eucalyptol from eucalyptus.  

All of these compounds are highly aromatic and easily released into the air when the plant parts are bruised or distilled into oil.  

Cats bite and paw the leaves to produce more scent because it just plain smells fantastic.

What Does Catnip Do To Cats?

(Nepeta cataria) or Catnip is a member of the mint family.

This perennial herb can grow up to 3 feet.

Catnip will make your cat very calm when it’s eaten and go crazy when they smell it.

How Does Catnip Work?

Nepetalactone acts like a pheromone to cats when they smell it.  

And smell it they can.

A cat can detect 1 part per billion of nepetalactone in the air.  Male and female cats respond the same, suggesting it is a non-sexual response and more likely just makes them feel good.

Cats sniff the catnip and the nepetalactone reacts with olfactory receptors to stimulate the olfactory bulb.  

The bulb sends the information to different parts of the brain, particularly the amygdala and the hypothalamus.  

The amygdala regulates emotional responses to a stimulus while the hypothalamus is a master regulator and handles homeostatic functions like body temperature, hunger, sleep, and attachment behaviors.  

More importantly for our purposes though, the hypothalamus controls the pituitary gland.

The pituitary secretes hormones like oxytocin, the “love hormone” that reduces fear and anxiety, reduces symptoms of depression, and increases social bonding.  

Oxytocin is one of the few hormones that act in a positive feedback loop, where a stimulus releases oxytocin, which produces a response, which stimulates more oxytocin.

This entertaining (funny) video below from Growing Your Greens explains more:

 

Responses to catnip include the delightfully undignified:

  • chin and cheek rubs
  • drooling
  • sniffing
  • licking
  • biting
  • rolling around like a drunken slob
  • bunny kicks
  • general friskiness

If the catnip is applied to a scratching post or board, the cats may vigorously scratch to their heart’s content.

Sometimes they run around and chase each other or get into small spats if one of them is hogging the good stuff.  

Their iris’s also get really big.

Black cat eyes.

All around, it’s great entertainment.

Nepetalactone effects 66% of cats and it is a dominant gene.  

Young kittens under 8 weeks old do not react to it.

What if my Cat Doesn’t Like Catnip?

Not all cats respond to catnip. It is estimated that about 1/3 of the cats lack this gene.

That’s ok!

There are other plants do attract the other 33%. (the other 33% are those that react very mildly)

A few of these plants are:

  • Tartarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica)
  • Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
  • Silvervine (Actinidia polygama)

These are alternatives if you are determined to make your cat get high.  

75% of cats that do not like catnip respond to silver vine gall powder and 50% for Tartarian honeysuckle.  

Actinidine seems to be the stimulating compound in these alternative plants.

I even read a comment on a woman’s cat-loving kiwi vine for some reason.  

These plants are worth a try!

Is Catnip Bad for my Cat?

Catnip is not going to hurt your cat, except possibly wound their dignity.  

The only cats that should not indulge in catnip are pregnant cats, as catnip is a uterine stimulant and can induce early labor or miscarriage.  

Pregnant women should also avoid it for the same reason.

Growing Catnip: Indoors, From Seeds or In Containers

Why would you want to grow your own catnip when you can easily buy some in a store?  

The answer is freshness.

There is no way to know how long that catnip in that bag or toy has been sitting there.  

Herbs have a shelf-life.

Cats need fresh catnip to have the best response.

Growing it yourself allows your cat to have fresh catnip all the time.

Though, if you are unable to or don’t want to grow your own plant, there are online sources of high-quality catnip.  

Go to reputable herb sellers like:

They sell fresh and high-quality herbs for your cat or for yourself.

Luckily, catnip is relatively easy to grow.  

It prefers full sun but can take some shade, and though its scent increases with sandy soils, it takes most soil types as long as it is well-draining.  

This plant is medium-sized, growing 3-4 feet high in a loosely mounded shrub with soft grey-green leaves.

It produces lovely lavender flowers and is popular as an ornamental, especially in cottage gardens.  

Like all mints, it attracts butterflies and other pollinators.

Catnip can be grown from plants or by seed.  

catnip nepeta cataria herb for cats

Many garden nurseries stock catnip plants ready to be planted wherever you like.  

They can also be bought online and shipped to you. Seeds are easiest to acquire online.  If you want a lot of plants, seeds are by far the cheapest option.

Growing Catnip From Seed

Start seeds in early spring for best results.  

Catnip seed is small, so only just barely cover them with soil.  

Water daily using mist until they germinate in 7-10 days, after which you can use a gentle hose or watering can.  

You can grow seedlings three ways:

  • sow in seed trays to get individual transplants
  • sow several seeds in a pot
  • sow outdoors in rows

If you want a lot of plants, use seed trays.  

The 72-count or 128-count trays are best.

The organic potting mix works well, but you will have more success with a seedling mix.  

Once your little plants are 4-6 inches tall, they can be transplanted into pots or outdoors.

For sowing catnip directly into a pot:

  • Make evenly spaced shallow holes
  • Sow 3-4 seeds per hole
  • Barely cover with soil
  • Once 4-6 inches tall, select only the strongest seedling per group and cut the others down at the base
  • Two or three plants can live happily in a five-gallon pot.
  • Use any organic potting mix.

When sowing catnip outdoors:

  • Dig a shallow trench
  • Add the seed
  • Barely cover with soil
  • Mist deeply
  • Space rows two feet apart
  • When seedlings are 3-5 inches tall, thin them to every 14-18 inches

[Here is a great resource on growing catnip]

Caring for Mature Catnip Plants

Once plants are established after 1-2 months, allow the soil to dry a little between waterings.

Mints do not like to be waterlogged.

It is better to water mature plants deeply once or twice a week than a little bit every day.  

This encourages a deeper root system and makes them hardier against drought and other stressors.

Whether in a pot or outdoors, catnip does not require much fertilizer.  

Too much fertilizer makes mints grow spindly and leggy.

A 2-3 inch layer of organic compost twice a year is all it needs.

Use a 2-3 inch layer of organic mulch such as wood chips to reduce watering needs, alleviate drought, and improve the plant’s general health.  

Replenish in the spring.

Prune catnip plants in the early spring to encourage lush growth.  

Do not remove more than 1/3 of the plant at any one time. If you want a lot of catnip, you can cut a mature plant down to the ground after the first bloom is over.  

The plant will completely regrow and bloom again.

What is Better? Growing Catnip Outdoors or Indoors?

Growing indoors or outdoors depends on your needs.  

Some cat owners want their cats to be able to enjoy their catnip freely, so if you have an exclusively indoor cat, keeping an indoor pot is the best choice.  

Just be aware that your cat may take bites out of it now and then.

If you have outdoor cats, it is up to you.

An outdoor cat (whether yours or not!) will revel in an outdoor catnip plant.  

They’ll wallow and roll in it, so make sure you are okay with a slightly squashed plant occasionally.

Give it lots of room so the cat does not damage nearby plants.

If you want your cats to have catnip at your discretion, keeping an outdoor plant for indoor cats, or vice versa could be a good option.  

It’s hard to keep an indoor cat from an indoor plant.

Catnip can be slightly invasive in some places because it makes a lot of seeds.  

Volunteers tend to come up all over the place. If you want it to stay where you put it, you may want to use a pot on a patio or take it indoors.  

You could also remove spent flowers before they go to seed.

Indoor plants need more watering than outdoor plants in general.  

They can’t take advantage of rainfall.

They also need more consideration when it comes to light.  

Either put in front of a south-facing window or use fluorescent grow lights to keep the plant from getting weak and leggy.

Below is a video showing a timelapse of container garden grown CATNIP from seed to harvest:

 

Harvesting and Storing Catnip

Catnip has its highest nepetalactone content when flowering.  

Harvest catnip by cutting flowering stems, tying them in a bunch, and hanging them up.  

Choose a high, cool, dark place with no drafts. The herb will take anywhere from 2-6 weeks to dry.  

This is the best way to retain all the volatile compounds in the plant, but it does take longer.

I recommend covering the bundle in a paper cone to reduce dust.

Oven-drying is a faster, though lesser quality, option.  

Dry the herb in the oven for several hours at your lowest possible setting until crispy and crumbles when you touch it.

Dehydrating is a good compromise between hang drying and oven drying.  

Dehydrate for 6-8 hours.

Store dry catnip in glass containers.  

You can buy dried catnip over from Amazon also

You can also use plastic, but it will not keep as long.  

Dark containers reduce light oxidation and improve shelf life.  

It should stay good for several months. Another option I use a lot for my herbs is a plastic bag in the freezer.  

Whole herbs stay fresh for up to two years when sealed tightly in the freezer.

How Can I Give Catnip to My Cat?

If you have an indoor plant, you can simply leave the pot where the cat can access it.  

They’ll get pleasure from it freely.

For dried or fresh catnip, offer a pinch or two of dried herb or a few fresh leaves.  

Put it on any surface.

My favorite is a flat cardboard scratching board because they wallow and scratch all over it, and it is adorable.

Make an easy toy by adding a few pinches of dried herb to a sock.  

You can also take a small stuffed animal, rip open a seam, add the catnip, and sew it back up.  

Such toys are numerous in pet stores, but their catnip will not be as fresh as one you make yourself.

Catnip Tea Is Another Option: 

  • Add a teaspoon of dried catnip to a cup of hot water
  • Steep for five minutes
  • Then strain. 
  • Allow it to cool to room temperature.
  • Put the cup on the floor and let your cat drink it.

I was only able to find an anecdotal use of catnip tea for cats.  

Some people’s cats did not like it at all, while another person uses this method frequently to get their cat to drink enough water to prevent urinary issues.  

This probably is not the method of choice to get your cats high, but it is worth a try!

Cats cannot overdose or get a hangover from catnip, but that is no reason to waste it.

A couple pinches really are plenty.

Don’t give them a tablespoon of herb thinking it will produce a bigger reaction because it won’t.

Catnip is easy to use, easy to grow, and one of the simplest ways to entertain your cat and yourself.  

Though, if your cat doesn’t like catnip, there are other options to try.

Do not give up the dream of getting your cat high!

Related Questions

How long does catnip last?

It’s not addicting and its effects only last 10-15 minutes.  The cat can, however, become used to it, so try not to use it too often.  At that point, your cat will lose interest. For your cat to be susceptible again, might take a couple of hours.

Be careful they don’t overindulge as they’ll get sick.

Giving catnip once a week is plenty.  

Catnip is not going to fix behavioral problems like aggression and anxiety.

Why does catnip make cats go crazy?

The chemical compound, Nepetalactone, is what attracts and affects your cat. The act of your cat smelling catnip will make them go crazy. But when your cat eats it, it’ll act like a sedative.

How do you make catnip spray?

Commercial catnip spray is made with catnip essential oil diluted 99.85% in water. It’s safe to use and is commonly sprayed on furniture, like scratching posts or cat trees. Be careful with the catnip oil content of a spray.

I was only able to find one that even told me how much oil was in it and it was 0.15%.

Always compare the oil percentage on the bottle. If you do not trust any commercial sprays, you can make your own, either with essential oil or tea.

Here is the formula (increase quantity to match your spray bottle):

  • 1 drop of catnip essential oil
  • 1 drop of olive oil in 1 teaspoon (98 drops) of water

The olive oil acts as an emulsifier. 

The essential oil is very potent stuff.

Do not increase the essential oil percentage.

The other method is to simply make a strong catnip tea, described below, and put it in a spray bottle.

Do cats eat catnip?

Cats do eat catnip. When they chew catnip, it can “bruise” the leaves cause a  release of the chemical nepetalactone.

Can kittens have catnip? 

Kittens can have catnip but don’t develop the reactive ability to catnip until around 3 – 6 months old. Among the kittens who do like catnip, you’ll see them acting lazy, while others get a wired-up and hyper.

Is catnip good for cats?

Catnip is safe for cats and it’s non-toxic. Your cat may or may not have those crazy effects after eating or smelling catnip. This is very normal. Catnip is safe and temporary, there are no lasting effects of catnip.

There are some studies that estimate that half of the cats will have a reaction and the other half that don’t. They’ll just be calm when they smell or taste it. Of course, these numbers and studies will vary. Some studies show that ⅓ react substantially, some react so-so and the rest don’t react at all.

So, have we got that straight?

No matter what any study says, you can definitely say that your cat is totally normal whether they react or don’t.

A Note On Toxicity:

The ASPCA, I’m not 100% sure why states that catnip is toxic. But to me, it seems they mean in an overly high amount at one time. 

I stated above that eating too much leads to vomiting or diarrhea (they’ve listed as the two “clinical signs” of toxicity on their site).

If anyone here can chime in on this, please do!

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