Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a plant native to North America that grows as a perennial in some zones. Fresh leaves of the catnip plant have a mint-like scent, and dried leaves smell like alfalfa. All other members of the cat family, with the exception of tigers and bobcats, have a peculiar reaction to contact with this plant known as the catnip response.
The catnip response includes initial investigation, oral contact, grasping and kicking, and abandonment of the catnip source. It lasts an average of about 6 minutes but is most intense for 2 to 3 minutes.
Some cats are eager when catnip is offered while other cats appear to avoid it, despite prior displays of catnip sensitivity. This suggests a voluntary component that is self inhibited if the cat is stressed or not well.
Male and female cats of reproductive age are more sensitive to catnip than are very young or old cats. Kittens may not show any sensitivity to it until puberty begins at around 4 months of age.
Sensitivity to catnip is inherited as a dominant autosomal gene and a minority of cats may not inherit catnip sensitivity.
The mechanism of catnip’s action is not clearly understood. Elements of the catnip response appear at first to be sexual in nature but may actually be more closely related to predatory patterns. At the very least, the catnip sensitive cat seems to be having a good time.
Catnip is not toxic to pets and is commonly incorporated into cat toys. It may be applied to the surface of scratch posts to attract a cat’s interest.
Catnip can be grown as an indoor houseplant. This provides your cat a fresh supply (they like it fresh or dried) of a treat and will help keep him away from chewing your ornamental houseplants.
Dr. Stefanie Schwartz, DVM, MSc, Dip. ACVB is a board certified veterinary behaviorist and founder of www.CivilizedPet.com. If you need help with a misbehaving pet, please visit www.petbehavior.org.