Ask A Vet: What's with Catnip?


Welcome to our weekly 'Ask a Vet from the SF SPCA' feature on Dr. Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB is a board certified veterinary behaviorist who counsels guardians whose pets’ issues are beyond the scope of training. Think of her as a pet shrink…at your service. Ask your own questions in the comments!

Q: What is really behind catnip? Why do cats go so crazy for it and what effect does it have on them?
A: The herb with the beautiful name, Nepeta catarina or commonly “Catnip”, is not related to marijuana or psychedelic plants, but rather to the more mundane mint family. The animated, captivated and thoroughly “high” behaviors that your cat might exhibit are a response to the smell, but not all cats respond equally or at all. Whether your cat digs it is totally hereditary. 

The response to catnip can differ from cat to cat. Some cats become very agitated others become almost sleepy. The behavior can range from sniffing, drooling, pawing, licking, eating, vocalizing and chin, cheek and body rolling similar to a cat in heat as well as growling. The response starts quickly after exposure but usually only last for 5-15 minutes. The chemical that induces this behavior in cats is called Nepetalactone and it is an olfactory (smell) response. Don’t waste your money on catnip for a kitten as the response does not occur before 3 month of age. If your cat enjoys catnip, it is safe to use and can offer wonderful environmental enrichment for a house cat. Don’t you wish mint tea could make you drool, paw, lick, roll on the floor or growl? Lucky kitties.

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