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September 9, 2020 |6 min read

The Truth About Catnip: How Does it Work?

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It’s the weekend and it’s time to party hardy with your cat! That means it’s time to bring out the catnip. If you’ve ever used catnip with your cat you know how fun it can be for them to use, (and for you to watch). But have you ever wondered how catnip works? What is it made of? Why does my cat love it so much? Can catnip work on me? How much is too much catnip? 

Before sprinkling a little catnip over your cat's favorite scratching post, read on to learn how catnip works on cats. 

Let’s start with the basics. What is catnip? 

Catnip is actually a shrub that derives from the mint family. It’s plant name is Nepeta cataria. That means catnip is all natural. Think of it as a special tea for your kitty. Except instead of winding down with tea before bed, they turn up. Your cat likely will enjoy catnip, which makes it a great reward if you’re training your cat

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Where does it come from?

Nepeta cataria can be found growing on the side of the road in America, but is native to Asia and Europe. However, if you’re feeling ambitious, you can actually grow fresh catnip. It requires lots of sun, regular watering, and good draining. Catnip can grow outside during the spring or fall, and if you’re growing it indoors, make sure it gets at least eight hours of sunlight. If you are growing it outdoors, keep in mind that like a mint plant, it has the ability to take over a garden. 

If you do end up growing your own catnip, you can try giving your cat one leaf first, then try two a day. 

The Science of Catnip

Grab your lab coat and notebook, because it’s about to get real scientific. Nepeta cataria creates a chemical known as nepetalactone. This chemical is coated all over the plant’s leaves and stems in tiny little pods. When there's friction the pods break open and release that chemical into the air. 

This is where it gets interesting for your cat. 

Whether the plant is dried, live, or turned into an oil extract, it can affect your cat simply by being inhaled. When the nepetalactone chemical is breathed in, it stimulates neurons in the brain. It specifically can change the hypothalamus and amygdala. This part of the cat’s brain is responsible for managing emotions. This means that once your kitty gets a whiff of that catnip, they might seem a little happier or more excited than usual. 

Some scientists have also hypothesized that nepetalactone triggers the vomeronasal organ, which is an organ found in many mammals, but not humans! This means it won’t have the same reaction on you. 

How will my cat react to catnip?

Most cats get a whiff of catnip and are immediately ready to party. They could roll around, get the zoomies, or just seem super out of it. But this could be dependent on whether your cat inhaled the catnip, or ate it. Some cats have a totally different reaction to eating catnip, and can actually become quite calm. 

If you’ve tried catnip with your cat and they seem more aggressive than usual, wait it out. If they have a negative reaction, it is likely to wear off within 10 minutes. However, it could take up to two hours to go back to normal, so don’t immediately give them more to sniff or snack on. 

Where to keep the catnip?

It’s important to keep the catnip fresh so that it lasts longer and keeps its potency. Keeping it in a jar or airtight container is best, but you can also put it in the freezer. If you happen to have a catnip plant in the house and your feline friend has enough control to not nibble on it all day, it’s fine in the house. However, if they don’t have much self control, keep the plant in a room or on a shelf they don’t have access to. 

How much is too much catnip?

It is highly unlikely for a cat to overdose from catnip, however, it is possible that they can get sick from too much. If you notice your cat has a negative reaction, like vomiting or nausea, the catnip should definitely be limited. If you’re concerned about introducing catnip to your cat, consult your vet first. 

The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) is an incredible resource if you think your cat may be having an emergency. (888) 426-4435. 

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Stay Educated, Stay Entertained

Whether you sprinkle dried catnip on a cat toy, give your kitty some catnip tea, or even reward them with some fresh catnip leaves, this dried herb is a fun way to enhance the evening with your feline friend. The more you know about this special plant, the more you can take advantage of the benefits and make it a part of you and your cat's daily routine. 

Try giving a pinch of catnip to your cat after a morning scoop of PrettyPlease. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to clean that morning scoop of PrettyLitter. This routine is an excellent way to keep your mornings fresh and exciting! 

Searching for other plant safe options for pets? Check out our favorites list of cat safe plants here.


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Christina Scamporrino is a lifelong animal lover and began working in the petcare space in 2019. Christina’s passion for the community of feline owners and enthusiasts have led her to designing premium packaging for PrettyLitter cat litter, PrettyPlease dry food, wet food, and treats, and a litter box designed to solve common litter box issues.

Outside of her professional work in the petcare space, Christina is a longtime kitten foster and has worked with several cat rescues throughout Southern California. When given the option, she favors orange cats, but loves all cats equally.