By Kate Hughes
While cats are plenty silly on their own, there are few things like seeing your kitty under the influence of catnip. For those cats who respond to the nip—experts say that’s anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of felines—reactions can vary from purring, rubbing, and vocalizing to rolling and even amorousness, says Dr. Sarah Gorman, associate veterinarian at Boston Animal Hospital.
Cats do not respond to the taste of catnip but rather the smell, Gorman notes. “Because it is in the mint family, catnip has a strong menthol scent created by a chemical compound called nepetalactone,” she says. “Nepetalactone and its chemical cousins are found not only in catnip, but in other plants as well.”
The catnip response is determined by genetics, Gorman adds. “It is an autosomal dominant trait, meaning whether or not a cat will react favorably to catnip is actually based on genes inherited from the parents,” she says.
Additionally, age plays a role in response. Cats’ olfactory systems, which are responsible for their sense of smell, continue to develop until they are 3 months old, Gorman says. “So if your kitten doesn't like that new catnip toy you bought him, try again when he reaches 3 months,” she says.
So what if your cat doesn’t react to catnip? Are you forever doomed to live with a feline prone to only regular bouts of cat silliness? Not so! There are several alternatives that pet owners can try to coax a little bit of crazy from their kitties.
Silver vine is a flowering climbing plant native to China and Japan and contains several of the chemical cousins of nepetalactone that Gorman mentions above. According to a study that was published in BMC Veterinary Research, almost 80 percent of cats in a 100-cat study reacted positively to silver vine. Beyond that, 75 percent of the cats who did not react to catnip had a reaction to silver vine. This catnip alternative is readily available online in both powder and stick form and has been incorporated many different types of cat toys.
According to the University of Connecticut College of Agriculture, tartarian honeysuckle is a dense and twiggy shrub that flowers with small red, pink, and white blossoms. Tartarian honeysuckle is another one of the plants mentioned the BMC-published study. “You’ve got about a 50-50 chance of your cat responding to tartarian honeysuckle, but for a couple of the cats in the study, this was the only plant material they seemed to enjoy,” says Dr. Jennifer Coates, a veterinarian in Fort Collins, Colorado. Tartarian honeysuckle is also available for purchase online from specialty pet retailers.
A perennial flowering plant with pink and white blooms, valerian root is another alternative for catnip. The BMC-published study noted that 47 percent cats exposed to valerian root had a reaction. Pet owners can buy dried valerian root online. It also works as a complementary treatment for humans suffering from anxiety, insomnia, and nervousness, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. “I’ve seen some reports of veterinarians using valerian root to relieve anxiety in cats since it seems to have a calming effect after the initial excitatory stage,” Coates adds. “It wouldn’t be my first choice for treatment, though.”
It should be noted that catnip is a type of catmint. Catmint is a very easy-to-grow and adaptable plant, making it popular in gardens. There are several kinds of catmint besides catnip, including Blue Wonder catmint, Faassen’s catmint, and Persian catmint. Most catmints include some nepetalactone, meaning they can incite a reaction, but catnip typically has the strongest effect on kitties of all catmint plants.
It’s also possible that a cat who isn’t reacting to catnip or its alternatives just isn’t scent motivated, says Dr. Ryane E. Englar, assistant professor and clinical education coordinator at the University of Kansas College of Veterinary Medicine. “If this is the case, you want to engage your cat in a different way,” she explains. Englar suggests figuring out what type of play your cat prefers. Some cats are into jumping after birds, while others like to stalk prey on the ground. “You want to get them excited, because that’s really what catnip does,” she says.
Play might be a good alternative for cats that get too wound up by catnip, she adds. “They can get too stimulated and throw up, so playing may actually be a better way to interact in some cases.”
There isn’t a lot of official research into catnip alternatives, Englar says. “The reality is, catnip itself was only discovered as a fluke. We never know what might incite a reaction—it varies from individual to individual. For example, my cat loves Earl Grey teabags. What is it that she likes? Is it the tea leaves? The smell of the bergamot? The texture of the bag? I don’t know. I don’t know if other cats have these reactions. Only once more studies get funded will we know for sure.”
Read more: 7 Surprising Facts About Catnip