Some cats are so lazy they don’t even know what «playing» means. Want to give your cat an energy boost? Try catnip! This notorious plant is said to change the personality of your furry friend. We’ve put it to the test.
Catnip, also referred to as catmint, makes cats go crazy – or go to sleep. The scent of the plant has a stimulating effect on cats; eating it has a calming effect. About 70% of cats are said to react to catnip. How? It makes them high. Is it unhealthy for cats? Is it addictive? Read on to find answers to these and more questions about catnip.
Plus, I tested catnip on my own cat. Did it work? We’ll get back to that later. First, let’s take a look at what research tells us about this plant and its effects.
A species of the genus Nepeta in the family Lamiaceae, catnip is a short-lived perennial, herbaceous plant that grows to be up to one metre tall and is native to warm parts of this world; southern Europe, Asia and Africa. While it was popular to season meat in the 15th century, the plant is nowadays used for medical purposes: It relieves pain and is used against colds, influenza and stomach upset and is said to have antipyretic, diaphoretic, antispasmodic, detoxifying, diuretic and euphoric effects. A member of the mint family, catnip is also winter-resistant and very robust.
Here’s some advice from an expert: Want to plant cat nip in your garden? At your own risk. Why? Sure you can guess yourself. No? Then ask the 25 cats from your neighbourhood that are lingering around your garden enjoying their mellow high.
The name catnip is derived from the intense attraction it has on cats.
Fun fact #1: Cats themselves take over the task of spreading and ensuring the continued existence of catnip. By rubbing on the mint, tiny seeds get into their fur. The cats then carry them around and spread them all over their territory.
Fun fact #2: In 2010, the «Bund deutscher Staudengärtner im Zentralverband Gartenbau» (the Association of German Perennial Gardeners) awarded the «Perennial of the Year» – the Oscar of botanicals – to catnip.
Fun fact #3: Some people smoke catnip as a substitute for marihuana.
The secrets of catnip
To us humans, the herb has a pleasant lemon-like smell and the typical mint scent. (In my opinion, the toys filled with catnip smell more like straw from a highly frequented hamster cage). As early as the Middle Ages, physicians discovered the effects of catnip on cats. Today, it's scientifically proven that the ingredient that makes this plant so special is Actinidia. It's similar to an additive that unsterilised female cats excrete in their urine. Nepetalactone, another alkaloid and pheromone contained in catnip, is also responsible for the strange reactions our cats show.
What’s fascinating about catnip is that – although we know as much as described above – many details regarding the effect of these ingredients are still unclear. In a time in which research has investigated and published almost everything there is to know about the world, this magic herb continues to live its peaceful and undisturbed life. What other secrets might this mystical plant be hiding?
On the left, an illustration of catnip – on the right, the pollen of the same plant under the microscope.
Observation has shown that male cats are more attracted to catnip than females. This makes sense; who’d want to smell their own urine? On top of this, the plant has less of an effect on very young and very old cats. As soon as cats reach maturity, they respond to the so-called «Catstasy» – regardless of whether they have been castrated or sterilised or not.
By the way: Not only domestic cats go nuts for catnip; tigers and lions can also react strongly to it.
MDMA for cats?
So we don't know exactly where the magic comes from, but we know what it does to our furry friends. If cats come across catnip and they belong to those 70% that react to it, there’s no stopping them: They roll over on the ground filled with joy and begin to chew on the plant. They might even rub on it. Catnip is a particularly efficient way to encourage overweight and lazy cats to play. Your cat used to love a toy and is now ignoring it? Try filling it with catnip and it's sure to get attention again.
Enlarged pupils, a disturbed look and ears close to the head – this stuff packs a punch.
The mesmerising, almost intoxicating effect it has on cats also works the other way: Hyperactive, nervous and anxious cats are soothed and calmed by the scent of catnip. Especially after an operation or a traumatic experience, the plant is known to work wonders.
Another theory suggests that the scent of catnip stimulates cats, while eating it is supposed to calm them down. Whether this is true or not has never been clarified. Many more cats will stumble about, doze off or go nuts on a catnip high before the secrets of this plant are fully revealed.
The high generally lasts between five minutes and half an hour. After this, your furry friend will get back to doing other things and lose interest in the catnip toy. There’s no long-term damage to be afraid of.
Breaking Cat: Watch out for angry cats
During my research, one warning appeared again and again: Catnip makes some cats aggressive. Not many, but some. If your cat goes bonkers when it smells or eats catnip, you must interfere and make sure it doesn’t get close to the plant again. You’ll know that your cat’s not reacting well if her behaviour is vigorous and uncharacteristic. If she starts to scratch and bite, you have to interfere.
You should also make sure not to use the catnip toy too often. If your cat plays with it every day, it may result in over-stimulation.
An all-purpose weapon that is second to none
If your cat responds to catnip, this plant can make your life a lot easier – provided your cat doesn't react like the one in the video above. Imagine you have an appointment at the vet's and your cat tries to get away from the transport box. With catnip, this is a thing of the past: Place a catnip toy in the box and your furry friend is ready for transport faster than you can say catnip.
Imagine this: You’ve just bought a new sofa and your cat has decided this new piece of furniture is better suited to scratch on than the cat tree. What can you do? Treat the cat tree with a bit of catnip (spray it, sprinkle some dried catnip on it or rub the plant directly against it) and your cat is sure to love the tree more than the sofa.
Putting catnip to the test
«There are two things I’m really good at: sleeping and eating.» Simba, cat.
This is Simba, my cat. She’s a female, almost two years old and a lazy bum.
Having read so much about catnip, I couldn’t resist trying it out on my own cat and finding out if and how she’d react. For my little experiment, I followed Patrick Bucher’s advice and got a range of catnip toys. One is never enough for my cat; she’s really picky.
A selection of catnip toys – the green fish was her first choice; the smaller yellow-red fish her second.
Business as usual: Simba is sitting on the balcony stretching out in the sun. I place the catnip toy on the living room floor, get my phone out, call her name and wait.
Simba is a proud cat and doesn't like being bossed around. But when she smells the catnip, she pricks up her ears and seems to realise that this is no ordinary afternoon. I can see her behaviour changing immediately. She follows the minty scent. Yet, I can sense vanity and indifference in her walk... for now.
She's showing interest, but not too much: The drug is slowly starting to take effect. She's still a little hesitant, but Simba stretches out and starts to play with her new toys. At this point, I'd like to mention that she's spent about five minutes a day indoors in the last two to three weeks. Thanks to her new catnip toys, she's now been at home for no less than ten minutes.
The drug is beginning to take effect.
Her arrogant «I’m a cat and stuff you» attitude has gone. Simba is in a frenzy and totally devoted to the magic herb.
She rubs her head and body against the toy, starts drooling and can't get enough. She grabs a second, then a third toy, rubs herself against that, too, and seems to lose control. It looks like she’s trying to crawl into the toys. Interesting, I note. I’m amazed.
Once again, catnip has lived up to its name. It clearly hasn’t failed to have an effect on Simba. Quite the opposite; I’ve rarely seen her play with a toy so intensely, and this although she used to be a very playful kitten. I’ve also never seen her salivate this much. Not to mention her huge pupils and crazy eyes.
Her toy is soft and wet now. I take it off her and put it on the balcony to dry. Simba needs some time to compose herself and process what’s just happened. She stares into the open room with empty eyes and then begins to sniff all over the floor in desperate search of her next shot. Well, that escalated quickly...
But that’s it for today – I’m ending the experiment.
Utterly exhausted: Catnip, the cat drug, has left its mark on Simba.
After a while, the effect wears off. The experiment has been successful and I’ve decided to reward Simba with a goodie and let her go outside again. At least, that’s what I thought. But after her 30-minute high, she makes her way into her cat bed and falls asleep after 30 seconds.
Don't worry, be happy!
Don't worry, animal rights activists out there: When used correctly, catnip in toys and in food is neither harmful nor toxic. The plants you can buy in stores are also harmless. The only plant you should be careful with is wild catnip that grows outside. But even wild catnip only presents a minimal risk.
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When I'm not stuffing my face with sweets, you'll catch me running around in the gym hall. I’m a passionate floorball player and coach. On rainy days, I tinker with my homebuilt PCs, robots or other gadgets. Music was my first love, cooking is my second: I’m a real foodie and love trying out new recipes. I also enjoy travelling to exotic places, tackling hilly terrain on my road bike and criss-crossing the country on my cross-country skis.