How Does Catnip Affect Cat Behavior?


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 blossoms and leaves.
Catnip blossoms and leaves. by Shutterstock

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.

Not all cats respond to catnip
Not all cats respond to catnip. by Shutterstock

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.

A couple of pinches is all it takes.
A couple of pinches is all it takes. by Shutterstock

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.

    Catnip makes old toys seem new.
    Catnip makes old toys seem new. by Shutterstock
  • 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.

    Catnip can be used to encourage cats to use scratching posts.
    Catnip can be used to encourage cats to use scratching posts. by Shutterstock

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.

Catnip can cause cats to act aggressively.
Catnip can cause cats to act aggressively. by Shutterstock

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.

3 thoughts on “How Does Catnip Affect Cat Behavior?”

  1. Is it possible for an 18 month old cat to be constantly stimulated by catnip in the cardboard scratch boxes? We took in a rescue who was very affectionate and social and playful for 2 days but on the 3rd day in the middle of the night just seemed to bounce off the walls – literally tried to climb our walls. Jumped all over every piece of furniture, the fridge, china cabinet, etc. He also attacked our feet to the point that we couldn’t take one step without him attacking again. We knew he thought he was playing but the situation got a bit worrisome. I took all of the cardboard scratch boxes out of the house later that morning and in the afternoon he seemed totally mellow again, napping. We aren’t sure if it was the catnip or if he may have been an outdoor cat previously. The rescue we got him from didn’t know much about his history. Only that his previous owners moved and someone found him in the street in traffic. We wanted to keep him because he was otherwise generally good but didn’t because we felt he might disrupt us on weeknights when we needed to get up in the morning for work.

    1. Hi Connie,
      Sounds like it didn’t work out, and we’re sorry to hear that. Here’s some info on cats on catnip and cats at night:

  2. I enjoyed your article on catnip, told me a few things I didn’t know, and will be reading a lot more on this site. We have a new kitten (a ragdoll, our first ever pedigree, all others are/have been rescue kitties) in a multi-cat household, who loves to bite through electrical wires! I know kittens have to play, we have a houseful of toys, cat trees, people who are here 24/7 and happy to play with her, and 4 other cats that have taken to her quite well and will play. She still insists on playing with cables (understandable as they look like the cord on toys, and mice tails etc), but it’s so dangerous. So far she’s gone through 2 laptop chargers, 2 sets of headphones, 2 sets of fairy lights, one gaming headset, an ipad charger cable, a phone charger and 3 different types of illuminated Christmas decorations, she nibbles wires a lot, the things listed are just the ones we didn’t get to in time. We are terrified that she is going to electrocute herself. She started at about 17 weeks, she’s only 19 now (so she’s done all that cable chaos in only 2 weeks). We have critter cord and cable protectors on everything that we can, have rubbed/sprayed cables with bitter apple, but that still leaves a lot of things that cannot be protected in this way, and she is relentless. We’ve tried distraction, tiring her out, making sure she’s well fed with good quality food, her teeth/gums are fine but bought her teething toys and teething catnip sticks which she ignores, we’ve even tried time out. Nothing so far has worked. Do you think she will grow out of this? (if she doesn’t fry herself first). Is there anything we might not have though of that you might be able to suggest. Sorry this is so long winded, I thought more information would be better than not enough :/

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