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Catnip Kitty: Why Do Cats Like Catnip? Watch the Catnip Video!

Updated on November 29, 2010

You’ve most likely heard about cats and their affinity for catnip. If you have a kitty or two that qualifies as a catnip cat, perhaps you’ve personally seen the effects that catnip has on felines. Cats love it so much that many companies produce cat nip toys for the sheer pleasure they bring cats!

So what is catnip, anyway? Catnip is actually a member of the mint family – a perennial herb. Its scientific name is Nepeta cataria, and it’s related to basil and oregano. Parts of the catnip plant – the stems, leaves, and seed pods – are covered with tiny bulbs. Inside these bulbs is the oil that contains the active ingredient in catnip. When the oil-filled bulbs reach the point of maturity, they burst, releasing the oil.

Catnip originated in Europe. It grows about three feet tall, and its leaves are heart shaped, with serrated edges. The leaves and stems are covered with fine gray “hair.” In the summer, the plant puts forth clusters of bell-shaped flowers of white or lavender, with splotches of deep purple.

Catnip made its way to America with the colonists. They often grew it in their vegetable gardens or in small kitchen herb gardens for the herb’s medicinal properties. It was often brewed into teas as a remedy for cramps, colds, insomnia, and gas. Sometimes the leaves were chewed to relieve the pain of toothache. Also, catnip poultices were often used in response to various aches on different body parts. Natural catnip also makes a potent insect repellent. Mosquitoes hate catnip oil!

After it was brought to America, the herb discovered that it liked its new home. The stuff grows wild in the states now, and in Canada. It can be found in fence rows on farms, on the shoulders of roads and highways, and on the banks of streams and rivers. It’s very prolific. Some people grow catnip in their gardens, and it’s grown commercially for use in catnip toys.

Why do cats like catnip? The active ingredient in catnip – at least to cats – is a chemical called nepetalactone. This sex pheromone-like chemical is processed by receptors in the cat’s nose and mouth. Some cats are extremely sensitive to catnip, and on some felines, it has absolutely no effect at all. Figures on the number vary, but some studies suggest that up to a third of the feline population is not affected by exposure to catnip. Scientists believe that the affinity for catnip is genetic – it’s inherited from the parent felines. If one parent is catnip sensitive and one isn’t, each resulting offspring has a 50% chance of being a catnip kitty.

What are the catnip effects for a cat that’s sensitive to the herb? For a cat that has a strong sensitivity to catnip, the stuff can make them crazy – in a happy, harmless kind of way. For cats catnip is a feel-good drug. When such a cat comes in contact with cat nip toys, it might lick or bite the toys. It might roll on the cat nip toys or rub against them. It might run around in circles or become highly excited. Some cats exposed to catnip perform somersaults or other amazing and humorous gymnastic feats. Much of this action is probably due to the catnip seed pods that hold the oil. The cat is most likely trying to rupture the pods or bruise the leaves and stems in an effort to release the essential oil that contains the “good stuff.”

On the other hand, a few cats seem practically sedated when exposed to catnip or catnip toys. Think of catnip as kind of a margarita for kitties, and compare the feline behavior to human behavior. When a human has a margarita or two, they might become more animated – chatty and gigglely. Some humans become more affectionate, and still others might become laid back and sleepy. One big difference in alcohol and catnip, however, is that catnip is usually totally harmless to the kitty nipper.

The catnip affect usually lasts for only a few minutes at the time, but when the cat is once again exposed to cat nip toys, the same behavior will be stimulated. BUT -and this is a big but – the cat must have some time away from the “nip” in order for the effect to be repeated. There needs to be at least an hour or so between the nip spells. This is probably a good thing! No cat could endure the zany antics caused by the herb 24-7!

Which breeds are most susceptible to catnip? According to scientists and veterinarians, catnip sensitivity has no relation to breed, gender, or size. It does, however, largely depend on the cat’s age, in additional to the genetic predisposition, of course. Kittens under three months of age are usually not affected by the herb. Many older felines also seem immune to catnip.

Is catnip harmful to cats? In most cases, catnip is completely harmless to felines. Occasionally, a cat will become so enamored of the herb that it might ingest it. This can cause diarrhea and vomiting, especially if the kitty eats a large quantity of catnip. Many veterinarians suggest limiting your cat’s exposure to catnip to twice a week.

How is catnip used with cats? Many cat owners enjoy treating their cats with a dose of catnip. It’s also enjoyable for humans – a catnip-sensitive cat puts on quite a show! Dried catnip can be sprinkled on carpet or sewn inside stuffed toys. The oil is sometimes used, also, usually in the form of a spray that can be sprayed on scratching posts and toys. In addition, cat nip toys that come with the magic leaves inside are readily available. Several of these catnip toys are available: a catnip banana, a catnip mouse, a catnip cigar, and a catnip pillow. I’ve purchased several catnip pillows and catnip balls over the years, and my cats loved them! I would bring out a catnip pillow or a couple of catnip balls occasionally, and as soon as the cats saw them, they would get all excited – even before they smelled the minty aroma. They knew what was coming!

How do you grow catnip? Natural catnip is actually pretty easy to cultivate. You can buy catnip seeds in just about any garden store. When I was growing catnip, I started the catnip seeds inside and then transplanted them to outdoor containers. If you decide to grow catnip, you might want to put some sort of cage around the plant. If you don’t, the neighborhood felines will be attracted to the plant and might destroy it in an effort to get to the catnip seeds containing the oil they crave. Many cat fanciers believe that this organic catnip is the best catnip available, and they’re right. Fresh catnip is more potent than the dried form because it has more of the catnip oil.

To see how catnip and cat nip toys can affect cats, watch at least one catnip video! It’s like virtual catnip video for humans! You’ll find several of these amusing clips below.


Catnip kitty!
Catnip kitty!

Catnip video

Catnip video #2

Catnip cigar

Crazy catnip kitty in a sink


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