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The Benefits of Catnip

It's a well known fact that cats love catnip, right? Actually, not all cats do. Some of the research on this feline favorite recreational "drug" shows that not all cats are sensitive to it. Also, it appears that kittens can't detect it until they are at least three months old, and senior cats have either lost or never had an interest in it.

Catnip is not a drug, of course, but is an herb, a plant in the mint family. Also known as catmint, it can be enjoyed by humans as a tea, though we aren't affected the same way. Some people feel it has a relaxing quality, but then, that is typical of most herbal mint teas.

Clearly, though, it doesn't relax most cats! For those of us who have dissolved into quivering lumps of laughter watching our cats go berserk with a dose of it, we have to wonder just what is going on there. Catnip does have a pleasing, mild fragrance that relaxes us but gives most cats a real buzz.

Apparently, this aroma is picked up by different olfactory receptors than ordinary scents and acts similarly to pheromones, so some feel it elicits a "psycho-sexual" response. The way many cats react seems to verify that idea, as they may roll around on the floor, rub up against everything, groan, growl, purr, or "trill."

Here is what we know about it so far:

1. It won't hurt the cat. It's not a drug, but an herb, so it is quite safe. So don't worry... you can't give them too much.
2. However, if you do offer it too often, cats will become desensitized. This means they won't get crazy anymore and will ignore it. In fact, it loses its appeal in about 10-15 minutes, but most cats can find it interesting again in a couple of hours. Still, if offered on a daily basis, the desensitization could become permanent.
3. The active ingredient is the plant's essential oil, called nepetalactone.
4. Kittens and older cats seem not to notice it, and only about two thirds of adult cats enjoy it.
5. Catnip sensitivity appears to be genetic. Most cats in Australia, for example, are not interested in it, since they are mostly from a closed genetic ancestral pool, and the "detector gene" doesn't show up very often. Don't worry if your cat isn't interested... she probably just doesn't have that gene.
6. While sniffing is the most common way cats "consume" it, they also may eat or lick it. Since it's not toxic, don't worry about that, either. If they eat a lot, they may vomit, as they might after eating grass.

Other than amusing ourselves, does catnip have any benefits to the cat? Since there seem to be no detrimental side effects, then it can only mean one thing: Yes!

Here are some good reasons to offer catnip to your kitty:

  • Helps to relieve boredom.
  • Motivates an indoor cat to get some exercise.
  • Helps a shy or fearful cat to feel less inhibited, especially in a new home.
  • Gives a cat under stress a chance to run off some energy so it doesn't become neurotic.

Another plant that has similar effects on cats is valerian, which is a relaxant for humans, as the mints are, but is excitatory for cats.

Dr. R.J. Peters enjoys writing about cats on the Internet. See more information at

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