If you’re a cat lover, you’ve probably seen how catnip can bring out the playful spirit in your feline. But did you know the plant has had other uses, some dating back to the Roman Empire? What is it with cats and catnip? Let’s get into it. 

What Is Catnip? 

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is an herb native to Southeastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia. The plant has dusky green feathered leaves that resemble a teardrop or an arrowhead. A hardy plant, catnip grows well in warm to temperate climates.  

Early mentions of catnip used by humans come from the Romans, who used catnip both as a seasoning in cooking and as a medicine. As a medicinal, catnip can be brewed into a tea and was used to treat a wide range of ailments—from gastrointestinal issues to asthma—though the science on its success remains debatable. 

Catnip arrived in the American colonies during the 1700s, where it continued to be used in recipes and medicines. The plant also contains a natural insect repellent, and it was used to keep pests away from crops and other plants. Its hardy nature also made it easy to cultivate, making it a popular garden plant. 

The plant’s use as a mood lift for cats seems to have evolved as house cats became a necessity to control vermin. As more cats entered homes and gardens, they interacted with catnip, and loved it! 

How Does Catnip Work? 

The science behind catnip’s effect on felines can be traced to a 1941 study that isolated the active agent in catnip, a chemical called nepetalactone. Nepetalactone is a cat attractant and mood elevator that affects not only house cats, but also some larger feline species such as cougars, lynxes, servals, and leopards.   

After nepetalactone enters your cat’s olfactory canals, it binds to neuroreceptors in the brain, resulting in a broad range of behaviors, including sniffing, pawing, or rubbing as well as purring and playfulness. At higher doses, effects vary. Consumption of the herb can leave some cats drooly and sleepy while it seems to stimulate some cats into “zoomie mode.”  

Interestingly, not all cats are affected by catnip. About 30% of cats are naturally immune to the plant’s effects. Also, kittens under 5-6 months old do not seem to have developed sufficiently to be affected by catnip.  

Why Do Cats Enjoy Catnip? 

Catnip interacts with your cat’s brain in a way that few other plants do. Nepetalactone seems to promote relaxation, decrease inhibition, and stimulate play. Catnip-infused toys are a great way to let your cat enjoy the experience, which commonly lasts about 10-15 minutes before gently waning.  

Cats are thought to enjoy the stress-relieving and mood-elevating qualities of catnip, much as humans enjoy alcohol or cannabis.   

Catnip and Cannabis are Not the Same 

If you use cannabis, medicinally or recreationally, there are a few cautions of which you should be aware.  

The active mood-altering ingredient in cannabis (tetrahydrocannabinol or THC) is different from nepatalactone. Cats cannot metabolize some cannabinoids as effectively as humans can, causing these substances to linger within the system, where they can potentially build to toxic levels. 

While most overexposures to cannabis are not lethal to cats, call your vet immediately if you believe your cat has consumed cannabis or cannabis products. 

If you use cannabis, label all cannabis-containing products clearly and place them out of your cat’s reach—this will go a long way toward preventing unwanted toxic exposures. 

Store cannabis edibles away from pets. Edible cannabis products are potent and may contain levels of cannabinoids that are unsafe for your cat. 

Signs of Cannabis Toxicity in Cats 

Common signs of cannabis toxicity in cats may include the following: 

  • Excessive sleepiness or excitation  
  • Drooling  
  • Dilated pupils  
  • Low blood pressure  
  • Vomiting  
  • Severe cases: heart arrhythmias such as bradycardia (a slow rhythm), seizures, or even death 

Most importantly, if you suspect your cat has consumed anything unsafe, contact your vet immediately. They’ll be able to guide you through the next steps. You may need to bring your pet to the vet for an assessment, or in cases of severe overdose, to an animal hospital. 

As cat lovers, we all want our pets to live long, healthy lives. When combined with a healthy diet and exercise, catnip treats or toys are a great way to keep your feline happy. Because catnip contains a compound called nepetalactone, the herb has a relaxing, mood elevating effect on cats. Catnip toys provide your pet with a fun experience, whether they want to play or just chill out.  

Catnip should not be confused with cannabis. Cats cannot process some of the chemical compounds in cannabis safely. So, it’s important to mark any cannabis products and to store them securely, away from curious paws. 

We hope you find the above information helpful. Look to us for insightful articles, important pet health tips, cat breed fact sheets, travel tips for pets, and more!