Catnip or Cat Mint - Nepeta cataria

The first time you see a cat 'high' on catnip can be quite an amazing sight, but the effects vary from one cat to another

Catnip spilling out of a jar

What is catnip?

Catnip. or Cat Mint is the common name for the herbaceous plant Nepeta cataria It is part of the mint family and is native to Europe and Asia but can be found throughout the world. There are cultivated varieties and a number of the Nepeta family are referred to as catnip. The plant contains a chemical called Nepetalactone which acts as a pest repellant, and it is this chemical which some cats find intensely stimulating, causing a reaction most easily comparable to recreational drug use in humans. Not all cats are affected by catnip - young kittens up to about 8-10 weeks are unaffected by catnip, and only around half of adult cats are affected due to differences in genetics.

Effects on cats

The effect of catnip on cats is intense but short lived, often only five to ten minutes after exposure. The drug takes effect through the nose, but even cats who cannot smell are affected. Whilst no-one is exactly sure what is happening to the cat the nearest human equivalent is said to be something akin to LSD or acid trips. Cats are likely to be experiencing very heightened positive feelings and possibly even hallucinations. Cats will show varied reactions with distinct differences between individuals, most end up rolling around in the catnip and may become very active or even very sleepy and begin deep purring. Other cats may show increased aggression, hunting behaviour, or drooling.
Catnip in garden with flowers
Catnip is part of the mint family and is fairly easy to grow

Growing catnip

Catnip is a herbaceous perennial which can grow to a metre high, it is easy to grow and is an untidy plant, sometimes considered a weed. It will spread into available spaces and often becomes top-heavy so may need propping up or limiting growth. You can also grow catnip indoors at any time of year and it has few demands apart from being kept in moist soil. Bear in mind that you may need to restrict access to your plants, especially when they are young, to prevent your cat destroying them. Catnip has a noticeable peppermint smell, which seems to be intensely disliked by some people but not others, so be wary of where you place it. Harvested leaves should be dried or dehydrated and then kept in sealed containers until ready for use.

Commercial catnip products

Catnip is used in all sorts of cat toys and accessories to varying degrees and intensities and you can also buy raw catnip and liquid catnip oil sprays. Raw catnip is the leaves of the plant dried and crushed, normally sold in small bags or tubs. Different brands use varying strengths and species of catnip, just like brands of tea - the difference is debatable although some cat owners swear by particular brands. Catnip spray can be used on toys to give them a 'refresh', or to encourage your cat to use a new toy, bed, or play area.

Using catnip

Raw catnip should be treated as an occasional treat, whilst catnip spray can be used as a toy 'refresher'. Because the effects of catnip can alter a cat's mood unpredictably and may change your cat's behaviour for several hours it is best to avoid continual use. Some cat owners simply give their cat a bag of catnip to tear apart and whilst the cats do seem to enjoy the process, the use of a plastic bag is debatable. Catnip all over the house can also be very messy so it may be better to tie the catnip up in a fabric bag. To make the treat more engaging you can hide the catnip somewhere in the house and allow your cat to hunt for it. This will exercise your cats body and mind, followed by a reward.

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