Is Catnip Safe for Cats?

This and Other Q&As About This Well-Known Herb

Domestic Cat Eating Catnip
Domestic cat eating catnip. Getty Images/Education Images/UIG

Catnip is a perennial herb belonging to the mint family Labiatae. Catnip is known in scientific nomenclature as Nepeta cataria. The plant is a weed-like mint that is now native to North America and Canada after being introduced from its native Mediterranean soil.

How Does Catnip Work?

The active ingredient in catnip is called Nepetalactone. The response to this chemical is mediated through the olfactory system that cats have a special receptor for.

This chemical is thought to mimic the effects of a pheromone to cause a variety of behaviors.

When cats smell catnip they exhibit a range of behaviors that may include sniffing, licking and chewing the plant, head shaking, chin and cheek rubbing, head rolling, and body rubbing. This psychosexual reaction lasts for 5-15 minutes and cannot be evoked again for an hour or more after exposure.

I Bought a Catnip Toy for My New Kitten but She Didn't Seem to Care -- Normal?

Yes, particularly if your kitten is less than 3 months old. Very young and senior cats do not respond as much, or at all, to catnip. Also, 10-30% of the cat population does not respond to catnip at all, at any age. This is due to genetics -- reactions to catnip are hereditary. Some cats are genetically programmed to respond to catnip, and some simply aren't.

My Cat Really Goes Crazy Over Catnip -- Is It Dangerous for Him?

Cats are unique in their response to catnip, and the response can be very dramatic in some cats -- rolling, licking, rubbing, drooling, jumping, running, growling.

Other cats appear to become very sedate after exposure. And, as mentioned above, up to 30% of the cat population does not respond at all to catnip. In any case, for all of the (sometimes entertaining) behaviors seen, catnip is completely nontoxic to cats. If a large quantity of fresh catnip is consumed, you may see some vomiting or diarrhea, but this is rare and self-limiting.

If your cat experiences this, limit or withhold catnip.

Is Catnip Hard to Grow?

It is not, but it will take over your garden if you aren't careful. It is a perennial, and if you are in Europe, the northern United States, or Canada it should be easy to find at your local nursery. Some advice is to plant it in a buried 5-gallon bucket to prevent it from taking over your garden, but you can plant as normal -- it will likely grow fine, and return each year.