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How Does Catnip Affect Cat Behavior?

Catnip comes in varying strengths, and different cats have different reactions to it; here are the positive and negative aspects of this herb.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Sep 11th 2015


Nepetalactone. You might not be familiar with the word, but you’re familiar with the effects it has on cats. It’s an oil found in the leaves, blossoms, and stems of catnip. Its scent causes felines to deliriously roll around and to sometimes exhibit erratic behaviors. Kitties who ingest it often become calm and appear sedated. Not all cats respond to the herb; many couldn’t care less about it.

Catnip can be a good thing, and it’s not addicting — felines enjoy the effects and it can modify behaviors. Although there are many perks to catnip, there are also downsides.

Catnip doesn’t inspire all cats

Not all cats are affected by catnip. Genetics dictate which felines act goofy when exposed to it. It’s estimated that around one-third of them are apathetic about the herb. These kitties aren’t genetically predisposed to party with catnip. Age is also a factor. Kittens have no reaction to it until they are between three months and six months of age. Typically, elderly cats aren’t inspired very much by the plant either.

There are different qualities of catnip

A couple of pinches of good quality catnip can be enough to cause intoxication. Fresh, high quality leaves and blossoms elicit the strongest response. Catnip that’s old loses its potency — cats ignore it or take a whiff and walk away.

How catnip works

When cats ingest, roll on, or rub catnip leaves, blossoms or stems with their heads or cheeks, the herb is bruised and nepetalactone is released. Inhaling the oil is stimulating and euphoric — cats often act goofy when high on catnip. Typical behaviors include sniffing, chewing, drooling, head shaking, head and cheek rubbing, rolling, and self-licking. One theory states that smelling the oil elicits reactions similar to those of queens in heat.

Chewing and ingesting catnip has the opposite effect — felines become sedated and calm.

The effects don’t last long: on average, about 10 to 15 minutes. Cats don’t react when repeatedly exposed to the herb. It usually takes one to two hours to reset the response. If exposed to the plant too often, kitties become immune and won’t react at all. Ideally, they shouldn’t be allowed to party with it more than one or two times a week.

Cat zonked out on catnip.

Cat zonked out on catnip by Shutterstock

Virtues of catnip

In addition to cats enjoying the herb, it has other benefits, including:

  • It’s enriching and entertaining — it helps keep cats from becoming bored.
  • Catnip inspires obese and sedentary cats to move, exercise, and burn calories.
  • Old toys that have been rejected by cats become novel again after they are rubbed with the herb or immersed in it for a few days.

  • It’s a mood booster. Catnip can help cats through depression by focusing them on activities and encouraging them to interact with their environment.
  • Chewing catnip can temporarily calm and relax kitties.
  • Fearful and shy cats may act braver and become a bit more willing to socialize with people when under the influence of the plant.
  • A couple of pinches of fresh catnip can also be used to encourage cats to hang out in specific areas and scratch posts and horizontal scratchers instead of sofas and carpets.

The dark side of catnip

Catnip has a potential downside. Some kitties become overstimulated and aggressive when partying with the herb — this is especially problematic in multi-cat homes where relationships are less than stellar. These little ones need to be separated from each other and monitored during their first few encounters with the herb. If they’re overly rambunctious, they should party alone. Because the effect is short-lived, these cats can be reunited with their friends after about 30 minutes.

Other residents aren’t exempt. Cats who are high on catnip can become uninhibited and often will play rough, sometimes biting and scratching their favorite people.

The benefits of catnip far outweigh the negatives. It’s stimulating, fun, enriching, and can change cats’ behavior. At the same time it is safe for cats and doesn’t have harmful side effects.

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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. Marilyn can also help you resolve cat behavior challenges through a consultation.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site, Skype and phone consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other positive reinforcement methods. Marilyn is big on education — she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.