By Monica Weymouth
Catnip is like magic. Toss a sachet of the good stuff kitty’s way, and he’s in for a wild afternoon. But what is it about catnip that elicits such high-decibel purrs? How safe is this feline euphoria? Read on for seven surprising facts about the mysterious herb.
While many cats can’t get enough of catnip, others ignore it completely. Whether or not your kitty likes to indulge all comes down to genetics. “The catnip response is actually inherited as an autosomal dominant trait,” says Dr. Lauren Demos, veterinarian and president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. “Therefore, it’s inherited from a cat’s parents—if both parents don’t respond, neither will their offspring.”
Just as humans don’t all respond the same way to recreational substances, different cats have different reactions to catnip. Common behaviors include rubbing, sniffing, licking, chewing, rolling, and vocalizations—to widely varying degrees. “In the clinic setting, we routinely give cats a catnip pillow when they arrive as a new patient,” says Demos. “Most cats seem to enjoy it, but one or two get a little too aroused and are cut off for future visits.”
Nepetalactone, an organic compound, and its metabolic byproduct, nepetalic acid, are catnip’s secret ingredients—and they’re plenty powerful. Ingesting it does the trick, but simply getting a whiff can spark kitty’s interest, says Demos.
While cats go wild for nepetalactone, mosquitos have the opposite reaction. After discovering that catnip was better at repelling the dreaded suckers than DEET, researchers at Rutgers University created a highly concentrated super-breed for the insect repellent industry. Other pests that turn their noses up at catnip include cockroaches, flies, dust mites, termites, and deer ticks.
Sorry, kittens, but catnip is an adult-only substance. While it’s perfectly safe, it rarely has any effect on the little ones. “Like many responses in kittens, [the catnip response] takes time to fully develop—some suggest three months or longer,” says Demos. “Most kittens won’t react to catnip until they are older.”
Have you noticed that kitty seems to lose interest in his catnip toys fairly quickly? He’s not just being his usual picky self—the intoxicating oils in catnip break down quickly. To keep things fresh, Demos suggests growing your own supply. For an on-demand windowsill treat, plant an indoor container garden.
Fear not—this is one herb that doctors agree is perfectly fine to indulge in from time to time. The only time a pet parent should stay away from catnip is when their kitty has feline asthma, since the small particles can exacerbate coughing and wheezing if inhaled.
“There are certainly benefits to occasionally giving your cat catnip, including the environmental stimulation that the catnip provides,” says Demos. “There are no known negatives—other than the cleanup that can result from some cats who are very exuberant with their catnip play!”