What is Catnip and Why do Cats Love it?

June 15th is World Catnip Awareness Day! If you would like to donate catnip or catnip products to our shelter cats, please drop off any donations to our shelter on Holland Road. Your donation will offer added enrichment to the lives of shelter cats who are patiently waiting for their forever homes. June is also Adopt-A-Shelter Cat Month, so stop by our cattery while you’re here and visit with some of our furry friends.

In the meantime, we thought we would celebrate World Catnip Awareness Day by sharing some fun facts about this feline treat:

  1. Catnip is a plant that’s part of the mint family. This perennial herb is easy to grow and can grow up to 3 feet high.
  2. Cats are attracted to nepetalactone, a compound found in the leaves and stems of the plant. “The most active ingredient in this compound is nepetalic acid,” explains Dr. Ann Marie Woyma, Medical Director at the Virginia Beach SPCA. Nepetalactone is an essential oil believed to mimic feline pheromones and trigger pheromone receptors in cats.
  3. Catnip sensitivity is something your house tiger might have in common with the big cats. Lions, tigers, panthers, and other big cats react to catnip as well.
  4. Only 50% to 75% of cats are sensitive to the herb, so don’t be alarmed if your cat doesn’t respond to catnip. “Whether or not a cat responds to catnip is actually inherited as an autosomal dominant trait, so it only requires one gene to create a response to it, kind of like brown hair in people” Dr. Woyma explains. Young kittens aren’t affected by catnip either. Cats with a sensitivity do not react to catnip until they’re at least 8 weeks of age to a year old.
  5. We don’t know exactly why cats have different reactions to catnip, but that could be a genetic issue also. Out of Dr. Woyma’s three cats, “One becomes completely mellow, another has no reaction, and the third rockets around the house like a kid on sugar.” While individual cat reactions may vary, catnip generally acts in one of two ways. According to the Humane Society of the United States, if catnip is eaten, it acts like a sedative. It it is inhaled, it acts like a stimulant. The effects last approximately 5-10 minutes before wearing off.
  6. Cats with a sensitivity will no longer respond to catnip if exposed too frequently. When cats no longer seem interested in their new toy, remove the toy/catnip for at least two hours so their senses can reset. We recommend you swap toys out every few days. “New toys combined with new smells are wonderful enrichment tools.”
  7. Catnip is safe for cats, but be mindful of how your cat reacts in case exposure causes unwanted behavior. Dr. Woyma explains, “There have been studies done where cats are exposed to an extremely large amount of catnip with no lasting effects, so you generally don’t need to worry about an overdose.” However, she does not recommend using catnip around pregnant cats because it can potentially induce labor.
  8. Catnip is safe for humans and has been used in teas similar to chamomile. Catnip has also been a popular home remedy from treating headaches to insomnia. The Humane Society of the United States even reports concentrated nepetalactone can be a potent but temporary mosquito repellent.
  9. Catnip can be used as a training tool. We recommend sprinkling or spraying catnip on a scratching post to promote positive scratching habits, just remember to refresh every few days. Catnip can also be used as a positive reward while brushing or to encourage play.
  10. Catnip can be purchased in stores, grown indoors, dried (most common), or found as a spray. It’s recommended to store catnip and/or catnip toys in an airtight container in a cat-proof area. With a limited supply of catnip, our cattery staff marinates cat toys with catnip in a ziplock bag to absorb the smell. Dried catnip can also be stored in your freezer to help maintain freshness.

The Virginia SPCA carries a variety of catnip toys for your feline friends at home!  Below are some of our staff favorites.

VBSPCA Recommended Catnip Products:
Kong Naturals Catnip Spray
Fat Cat Boogie Mat
Yeowww! Organic Catnip (Loose catnip)
PetStages Easy Life Scratch, Snuggle & Rest
Yeowww! Catnip Toys: Apple, Banana, Pollock Fish & Rainbow

You can directly help homeless animals in our community by purchasing your catnip items and other pet products at the VBSPCA Shelter. Thank you for your support.