CVMA | Documents | Catnip – The Drug of Choice for Cats

Catnip – The Drug of Choice for Cats

October 24, 2012


Catnip has been a popular stimulant for cats for a long time. Over the years, it has been found to illicit intensely pleasurable reactions in most, but not all, cats. Catnip is native to Europe but grows as a weed in some parts of the Midwest U.S. and Canada, and is a member of the mint family. The active ingredient is nepetalactone, derived from the volatile oils which can be extracted from the plant. Catnip is very safe for cats, and there is no need for any concern on the part of owners regarding its safety. Despite its widespread use, very little is known about catnip and how it works.   
Besides household cats, catnip also affects lions, bobcats, lynx, leopards, jaguars, pumas, and ocelots. It is interesting to note that even though the response to catnip is widespread among felines, it does not occur in any other species of animal with the possible exception of man.
Whether or not a cat will respond to catnip has been shown to be an inherited predisposition.  Furthermore, not all cats respond strongly to catnip and kittens under two years of age usually do not respond to catnip at all (although there are exceptions).  
When exposed to catnip, behavioural changes in cats usually start with head shaking and staring into space.  Some cats will rub the catnip with their cheek and chin. Eventually, they may rub their bodies on the ground and roll from side to side with pleasure. The response to catnip rarely lasts longer than 5-15 minutes. After this time, there appears to be point of satiation where a cat will no longer be able to respond to catnip for a period of time (usually 1-2 hours).
There are a few theories as to how catnip works to produce such a pleasurable response. Because the behaviour of cats under the influence of catnip mimics that of courtship and copulation behaviour, some investigators suspect that catnip may be activating a part of the brain related to sexual behaviour. Another theory speculates that catnip merely stimulates pleasure and is in no way involved with sexual behaviour. Since catnip is biochemically related to marijuana and other so-called psychedelic drugs, another theory suggests that the pleasure response in cats is actually similar to that experienced by humans taking similar drugs.
Catnip can be easily purchased from your veterinarian as well as most pet stores and is available as an extract, an aerosol spray, dried leaves, or it can be grown as a house plant. Any questions and concerns about its use should be directed to your veterinarian. (2012)