If you haven’t tried catnip on your cat, you’re both in for a treat. Nowadays, cat owners are pampering their pets more than ever. We want them to experience the world and broaden their minds. What better way to do this than to give your pet a little “natural high”? Catnip is said to produce feelings of euphoria and relaxation in cats. And for humans, it’s very amusing to watch their reaction!
It all sounds very good, but is it safe? I’ve done my research and come up with the real facts about catnip. Scientists have actually written research papers on this! Read on to learn what a catnip “trip” is like for your cat, whether there are any long term side effects and how to choose the best catnip for your pet.
What Exactly is Catnip?
Catnip is the common name for Nepeta cataria – a herb related to mint and oregano. You may also hear it called catswort or catmint. As is probably obvious, the name comes from its ability to attract cats. Catnip is native to parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East however it’s now widely spread across North America and Canada too (source).
The plant can grow up to 100cm tall and looks quite similar to min – though the foliage is more brownish-green. It produces small white flowers with pale pink or purple spots. Although it’s easy to find catnip growing wild on the side of the road, you shouldn’t pick it there and use it on your cat. It’s most likely contaminated with harmful chemicals.
What Does Catnip Do To Cats?
The chemical in catnip which is responsible for its cat-attractant properties is nepetalactone. Cats mistake it for a feline pheromone. Pheromones are odors which influence cats’ behavior and are used for communication (source). Nepetalactone is released from both fresh and dried catnip. When they smell it, it binds to their olfactory receptors and triggers a behavioral response. You should notice some or all of the following reactions when your cat sniffs some catnip (source):
- Sniffing, licking, chewing & drooling
- Chin & cheek rubbing
- Rolling & body rubbing
- Running, darting around
- Meowing (rare)
These symptoms last for about five to fifteen minutes before the cat adapts to the smell and it loses its power. Your cat may “crash” after this session and need to nap. There’s a refractory period of about an hour before catnip will work on your cat again. This video shows some pretty hilarious reactions (warning, cute overload!).
Not all cats are susceptible to catnip, however it’s estimated that up to 75% have the so-called “catnip gene”. There’s no correlation with your cat’s breed or color. If your cat is younger than six months, you’ll need to wait until he’s fully grown to try catnip on him. It doesn’t work on kittens at all.
Is Catnip Good for Cats?
I’ve explained the physical response your cat has to catnip, but is it actually enjoyable for him? If a human started rolling around and drooling after sniffing a strange herb, we’d probably send them to the hospital. However, when our cats do this, we just watch on in amusement. Is catnip good or bad for cats?
It’s assumed that catnip provokes euphoric, relaxed feelings. There’s a small connection with sexual arousal too, however even neutered cats can enjoy catnip (source). There’s also evidence that some cats experience hallucinations on catnip, causing them to meow and chase things that we can’t see.
Since wild cats actively seek out the source of catnip scent and return daily to eat and roll in the plant, we can presume that they are having a good experience with it (source). One study on the long term effects of catnip ingestion showed no damage (source), so you’re unlikely to do any harm by getting your cat “high” occasionally!
Qualities of Good Catnip
Not all catnip is created equal. It’s no wonder people are going nuts over new, “artisanal” catnip brands – organically grown, potent cultivated strains, flower-top harvested and naturally dried. What does it all mean? Here’s what you should be looking for in a quality catnip product:
Fresh, dried or liquid?
Catnip can be used in either the fresh or dried leaf form or in a liquid spray. There isn’t much difference in potency between the three. The best catnip to buy depends on how you want to use it.
Many companies separate the catnip flowers and leaves from the stems and seeds as these have the highest concentration of nepetalactone, so dried can be even stronger than fresh. Time of harvest and drying techniques also matter. Liquid forms are extracted from the leaves and buds and also have a high nepalactone concentration.
Age & Storage Conditions
Catnip loses its potency the longer it’s stored. The vapor containing the nepetalactone evaporates. You should be able to smell the herbal aroma of good catnip. If there’s no smell, it’s most likely useless.
How long does catnip last in a toy? It depends on the initial strength of the catnip and how you store it. If you don’t store it carefully, it will lose its effect after about six months, in my experience. You can store catnip toys in ziplock bags or even freeze them to prolong their life.
Strain & Growing Conditions
The initial quality of the catnip is just as important as its age. If you start out with an inferior strain, the end product will be weak. Just like other plants, growing conditions such as soil, climate and nutrition affect the health of the herb. If you find very cheap catnip, it’s probably too good to be true. Unless you can smell the catnip yourself before buying, stick with reputable brands with a long track record for quality.
I choose organic products where possible in my own life, so why not for my cat too? Organic catnip is grown and dried without using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or any other artificial chemicals. Plenty of brands use organic processes these days but I think the best organic catnip is the plant you grow yourself. There are kits which make it easy, I’ll explain a little more later in this post 🙂
Kong is a popular brand in the pet arena. I’m a big fan and always recommend them when people ask me what’s the best catnip brand. We have a lot of Kong toys as well as their dried catnip leaves so I’m confidant to vouch for their quality. I mostly use it on its own, but you can also use it in refillable toys or simply rub regular soft toys in it to increase engagement.
We’ve had it for quite a few months now and it doesn’t seem to have lost potency. My cat can smell it a room away! The jar is well sealed so I think it locks in any vapors that do evaporate. This catnip is harvested at the optimal time to retain flavor and fragrance. It’s field-dried and contains mostly catnip leaves and flowers rather than stems and seeds. This means the concentration of nepetalactone is as high as possible for the strongest catnip.
If you’re looking for an alternative to Kong’s product above, Cosmic Catnip is another popular choice for loose dried catnip. The company states that it’s put “years of research into the culture and processing of this herb”.
Cosmic Catnip also separates the leaves and flowers from the stems for a more potent product. It comes in a well sealed container to retain freshness.
Some of The Best Catnip Toys
If it’s a refillable catnip toy you’re after the beaver catnip toy from Kong is one of my favorites. It’s a good size for your cat to grab and “attack”. It has a special pouch that can be opened and closed so you can add fresh catnip again and again. You get a small container of Kong’s awesome dried catnip to get you started. Protip: to get the most from this toy, give it a good twist and squeeze after filling to release more of the nepetalactone-packed essential oils.
When it comes to catnip toys, the Yeowww! Catnip banana toy has a fanatical following. Some pet owners believe it’s the best catnip in the world! It’s not refillable, but it’s stuffed with high potency organic flower-top catnip. When stored properly, it should last a long time. The size (7 inches) is great for your cat to grab with all four limbs and roll around with. My cats love to hold and kick their catnip toys. The banana is the ideal shape for that. It’s made of natural cotton twill, colored with non-toxic vegetable and soy dyes.
If your cat loves the thrill of the chase, the catnip mice from SmartyKat will be a lot of fun. It’s important for indoor cats in particular to get some exercise. Using a catnip-infused toy will encourage even the most lazy cat to try to catch it. The size and mouse shape are perfect for your kitty to carry in his mouth when you do allow him to catch it. These are also great if you have a cat who likes to play fetch.
The best catnip spray
If you don’t want to deal with the mess associated with loose leaf catnip, a spray is a great alternative. To be honest, I have to vacuum my carpet every time I use dried leaves. Kong comes up trumps again with their extremely popular natural catnip spray. It’s made from steam-distilled catnip oil. In fact, it claims to be “the most potent catnip oil available”.
The beauty of a catnip spray is that you can use it to train your cat. Spray it on a cat tree or bed to lure your cat right where you want him. The sealed bottle means it will retain potency as long as possible. It’s easy to turn plain old cat toys into catnip baits just by spraying them.
If you really want to spoil your cat, I’ve got just the thing. Catnip and treats are two things my pets go absolutely nuts over. When I discovered a catnip-flavored treat I knew it would be an instant winner. Feline Greenies makes their dental cat treats in a catnip variety. Not only will your cat love the smell – they’re packed with nutrients and clean the teeth too. Feline Greenies treats are made with all natural ingredients with added vitamins, minerals, taurine, and chlorophyll. They’re also accepted by the Veterinary Oral Health Council for tartar reduction.
Growing Your Own Catnip
If you have a bit of a green finger, perhaps you want to grow catnip yourself. The good news is that it’s easy to cultivate. For beginners, the best way to grow catnip is to get a kit like this one from Miracle Care. It has everything you need to get started – a specially-designed container to provide drainage, the appropriate soil and best catnip seeds. All you really have to do is place it in a warm, well lit spot out of direct sunlight and water it every two weeks or so.
If you want to store some of the plant for later use, the best time to harvest catnip is when it’s flowering. This is the point when nepetalactone concentration is highest (source). The best way to dry catnip is to simply hang dry. Cut the stem with leaves and flower and hang a bundle upside down in a cool dark place. When it’s ready, it should be brittle and crumbly.
Some other Catnip Tips
If your cat becomes desensitized to catnip (too much of a good thing can happen!), stop using catnip on him for a while. Put away any catnip toys when playtime has finished and bring them out again after a few days.
Don’t put out a large amount of dried catnip for your pet. About half a teaspoon full is enough.
Although catnip is safe to eat, if your cat consumes a large amount, he will get sleepy. If he accidentally gets into the jar and overdoes it, he could end up with diarrhea.
Store loose catnip in an airtight jar. Ziplock bags also work but make sure to keep them out of reach of your pet. He will tear through the bag if given the opportunity!