If you’ve ever tried giving your cat some catnip, you’ll know what a powerful effect it can have on your four legged friend! Catnip is part of the mint family, and is a natural herb which is also known as catswort, catwort or catmint. It’s famous for making cats go, well, a bit ga-ga. But why?

What is catnip for cats after all, what is catnip made of, what is catnip used for, is it addictive and is it safe for cats? Let’s look at catnip in more detail, as well as its properties and uses, and discover what on Earth it is about this strange little herb that makes cats go so wild.

So, what's catnip?

Catnip’s official scientific name is nepeta cataria, and is a fairly unassuming natural perennial mint-like herb. But boy, do some cats love it. Catnip contains the chemical compound nepetalactone, which has a bizarre effect on some cats’ behaviour. It is believed that the scent triggers the ‘happy’ response in a cat’s brain.

After eating or sniffing some catnip, cats can start to roll around, rubbing themselves on the floor and the furniture, and eventually start to zone out and go into a state of serious relaxation. They may also meow and some may get agitated, so exposure should be limited. You may wonder what’s catnip for, when should I give my cat catnip and whether it’s safe, but - depending how your cat reacts to it - small, limited amounts may help to relax your cat, help you to bond, or help them play, exercise or keep calm. Some cats start to drool when they smell catnip, so if this happens remove the catnip. 

Oddly, some cats appear immune to the effects of catnip, or at least may not show many signs of being affected. But it’s not just the majority of domestic cats - some big cats, such as lions and tigers, can also fall under the catnip spell whenever they sniff it out. Be aware though - not all cats like catnip and some may have a negative response (more on this later).

What is catnip made of?

So, for all the fuss it causes, what is catnip made of? Although many owners note its surprising calming effect on their furry friend, it is a fairly common herb which has naturally occurring nepetalactone oil (also known as terpene oil) in the plant’s leaves and stems. This stimulates a cat’s response in their brain, in the part connected to their mood. Catnip can come fresh, dried or added to a spray.

The effects of catnip will be unique to your own cat, and although owners commonly note that it makes their pet happy or relaxed, some cats dislike the smell or taste and may have an unhappy response. So it’s best to observe your cat when you first give them catnip, just to make sure they’re not stressed by it.

Grey cat enjoying fresh catnip outside

What is catnip used for?

What is catnip used for when it comes to cats? Some owners use catnip as a training aid, to encourage cats to use their toilet, cat bed or for cat flap training. You can also use catnip to help bond and play with your cat, or to help some cats relax.

Catnip can be used as a cat treat, or for using as a reward when teaching your cat new things. Remember though that not all cats like catnip, so be sure to choose rewards wisely before considering which cat treats are best for my cat.

Traditionally, catnip was a herbal remedy often made into tea, thought to help promote relaxation and digestion as well as soothe skin irritation. Historically it has also been used to help relieve stress, or even as a natural pest repellent to help ward off flying insects. 

Is catnip safe for my cat?

Catnip can usually safely be used in moderation for cats, as long as it hasn’t been treated with pesticides. Although it can make your cat temporarily lose the plot somewhat, small and occasional amounts are not known to have any lasting effects and it isn’t thought to be addictive. As a member of the mint family, it grows naturally, and the aromatic oils it contains are what cats react to.

However, over use of catnip can cause your cat to drool, or become light headed and dizzy, which can lead to vomiting or even an upset tummy and diarrhoea. For this reason it’s best limiting it to an occasional treat, using only a small amount at a time. It’s also recommended to keep cats indoors after they’ve indulged in catnip, to keep them safe from potential harm.

Can kittens have catnip?

Catnip isn’t thought to be harmful to kittens, but they won’t feel the effects of catnip until they are older - usually around 6 months in age. However, all cats are different, (as we well know) so some kittens can start to react from 3 months old, or as late as one year, and may slowly increase their sensitivity to the herb as they get older.

How can I give catnip to my cat?

Catnip comes in different forms, so you can choose what catnip favourite to give your pet:

  • Catnip treats: These are a tasty way for your cat to enjoy catnip! Many cats particularly like little morsels which are crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, like DREAMIES™ irresistible catnip flavoured treats.
  • Fresh catnip: It’s perfectly possible to grow your own catnip in your garden, in a herb pot or on a window box for your own fresh supply. Be aware that the fresh herb is stronger than the dried version, but you can simply trim off the leaves to give to your cat to play with and enjoy occasionally.
  • Dried catnip: Most pet shops sell dried catnip which is safe for cats to eat, sniff or roll around in. You can simply sprinkle it on their play area, or use it occasionally for training and bonding. Be sure to keep treats, fresh leaves or dried catnip in a sealed container so that curious kitties don’t help themselves whenever they please!
  • Catnip sprays: Another option is a catnip spray, available from larger pet shops, which can help to soothe some cats after they have been feeling stressed or when recovering from a minor illness. It can also be used for training, giving cats treats and occasional play.

Is catnip like a high for cats?

Although the natural oil compounds in catnip can trigger a sense of relaxation and euphoria in some cats, it’s not considered a recreational drug as it simply stimulates an area of the brain connected to their mood and behaviour.

Cats have a much more sensitive sense of smell than their humans, so they’re much more likely to be affected by it when they sniff or eat it. It’s not a drug, and this is a common misconception - it’s simply the scent of the herb which drives them wild. The effect isn’t long-lasting, and tends to wear off after around 10 minutes. 

Understanding catnip

Overall, catnip may help some cats to take some much-needed downtime from the stresses and strains of - oh - the sofa! And although some cats don’t enjoy the sensation, others seem to love it, and it can provide a fascinating insight into the wonderful (and occasionally weird) world of cat behaviour.

Now that you know what is catnip for cats, and why it might have a different effect on different cats, it’s important to keep an eye on your kitty if you give them any catnip. And of course, you can always go down the more traditional route by entertaining them with their favourite toys instead. Enjoy making time to play with your cat, and show them you love them back with our irresistible range of our DREAMIES™ treats.