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What is Catnip & What Does It Do to My Cat?

As pet owners, we are constantly searching for new and exciting things to do with our furry companions. Most cat owners have heard of catnip and probably even tried it on their feline friend. The behavior changes in cats can be both entertaining and mysterious. I hope I am able to demystify this “magical” product for you.

What is catnip?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a perennial herb native to Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and areas of China. It is in the mint family, Labiatae, and it shares several traits with the mint most of us are familiar with. Catnip can grow to be three feet tall, and it produces small green-brown leaves that have saw-toothed edges and flowers that bloom from late spring into the autumn. The plant is often incorporated into gardens because it is drought-tolerant, deer resistant, and it deters mosquitoes. It also attracts butterflies (and cats!) If you don’t have a garden, you can purchase fresh plants to grow in your home, dehydrated plant pieces, as well as catnip-stuffed toys and sprays.

How does catnip work?

The active ingredient in catnip is an essential oil called nepetalactone. When your cat plays with catnip, the oil enters the nose or mouth and binds to receptors that stimulate the olfactory bulb of the brain. The olfactory bulb sends the information to multiple areas of the brain. The amygdala, a region of the midbrain, is triggered and causes your cat to respond emotionally.

In addition to the amygdala, the pituitary gland – responsible for hormonal regulation – is stimulated. All of these neurologic events combined result in the behavior changes often referred to as a “high.”

How do cats respond to catnip?

Response to catnip is actually genetic, with approximately 75% of cats being receptive to nepetalactone. Since the pathway through the brain is partially hormonal, most cats do not react to catnip until they have reached sexual maturity at around six months of age.

Cats will usually lick, rub and roll in the product. Depending on the individual cat and the amount ingested, they will either be very excited or much calmer while using catnip! Cats that are stimulated will sniff, chew, lick, shake their head, rub their chin, cheeks and body. Some cats will even vocalize, jump, and run around. If your cat has a more laid-back personality, he or she may become more docile, drool and stretch. Rarely do cats display aggression from catnip.

The effects of catnip are short-lived and only last 10-15 minutes. Catnip is considered nonaddictive and safe. There is no specific dose for the herb, and most cats will walk away when they have had enough. For the rare cat who does overindulge, mild stomach upset is the only known adverse effect. Felines who frequent catnip can build up a tolerance that diminishes their response to the product. Therefore, it is recommended that you only let your cat enjoy catnip every few weeks.

Since catnip is non-toxic, lasts only a short time, and most cats enjoy it, it’s worth a try to see how your cat responds. While catnip is completely safe, we do recommend using it in moderation and under supervision!

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