Cats and Catnip: Exploring Catnip and Catnip Alternatives

By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley March 05, 2019

Environmental enrichment is an important component of keeping our cats happy and healthy. Cats are skilled predators with well-honed senses that allow them to capture prey and communicate with each other. Many of our cats are now kept indoors for their own safety, but this can lead to boredom and behavioral problems. Environmental enrichment is a way of providing both mental and physical stimulation that can improve your cat’s quality of life and prevent problem behaviors.

There are a number of ways to enrich your cat including food enrichment with puzzle feeders, cognitive enrichment with training, physical enrichment through play, and sensory enrichment by providing a variety of sights, sounds, smells, and textures in their environment. Cats have an extremely strong sense of smell with 200 million odor-detection cells which makes scent enrichment an excellent option for our cats (Bradshaw et al., 2015; Bol et al., 2017). One of the most common forms of scent enrichment for cats is catnip. Catnip is infused into most toys that are available in pet shops and is readily available for purchase both as a fresh plant and dried. In this article, we will discuss catnip and the effects it has on cats, as well as review alternatives to catnip that you can use to elicit different behavioral responses from your cat and provide them different smells, tastes, and textures. 

About Catnip

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb in the mint family that is naturally found in North Africa and the Mediterranean. Catnip is in a class of plants that release chemicals known as allomones. Allomones are released as a defense mechanism against pests. Cats are able to detect these allomones and often find these scents stimulating. The active ingredient in catnip, nepetalactone, often induces a euphoric response from cats causing them to sniff, lick, roll around, and rub in the catnip. It can also lead to cats shaking their heads, kicking their back feet, and drooling. It was previously thought that the response to catnip was similar to mating behavior, but this is no longer believed to be the reason cats behave this way (Bol et al., 2017). It is effective as a mosquito repellent, so if you have a green thumb, growing fresh catnip could be beneficial to you as well (although it could also attract a bunch of neighborhood cats if it is being grown outside).

Catnip comes in a variety of forms including live plants that you can continue to grow and take cuttings from every so often, dried herbs, sprays, liquids, bubbles, and pre-filled catnip toys. The quality of the catnip you buy can play a huge role in its effectiveness. Catnip can also grow stale so be sure to store it properly and to regularly replace your supply. Some pet shops now offer refillable catnip toys, which is a great option for keeping the toys fresh and attractive to your cat.

Cats can also get bored with catnip if it is provided all the time or too often. Rotating toys or providing a fresh sprinkle of catnip every so often on the toys can help keep cats interested. Providing catnip every couple of days or once a week is recommended for optimal response, but of course every cat is different and some enjoy a daily dose of catnip. Because of the positive influence of catnip on a cat’s behavior and mood, some cat behaviorists and owners use catnip for training and behavioral modification. For example, catnip can encourage a cat to scratch on appropriate scratching items around the house. Catnip is also often used in homes and animal shelters to reduce stress and anxiety or to promote positive social interactions between cats.

Catnip Effects

Cats can show very different responses to catnip. Some cats, especially male cats, may become hyperactive, possessive, or aggressive when they receive catnip. Other cats may become more subdued. Often times the way the cat interacts with the catnip is important in their response. Cats who sniff the plant may show a more energized response to the plant while cats that eat catnip will appear more sedated. The effects of catnip wear off within 15 minutes. Kittens will not show a response to catnip until they are about three to six months of age (HSUS).

Only about two thirds of cats will show a response to catnip as the trait is hereditary. Even big cats such as lions and leopards will respond similarly to our house cats, but tigers are the least responsive for unknown reasons (Bol et al., 2017). While the smell of the catnip typically causes a response, some cats enjoy eating catnip, especially in its fresh form. Catnip is safe for cats and is recommended as a regular form of enrichment, however, some cats may consume too much of it at once which could cause them to throw up (HSUS). If you have a new cat, be sure to monitor their first couple of interactions with catnip so you are familiar with their response and can behave accordingly. If you have a cat who becomes possessive and hyperactive with catnip, it may be best to separate the cats for catnip time.

Catnip Alternatives

There are some plants that can be offered to cats as alternatives to catnip including Valerian root, silver vine, cat thyme, Tatarian honeysuckle, Indian nettle, and lemongrass.

  • Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) is found in Europe and Asia. It has a different active ingredient than catnip, called actinidine, but it produces a lot of the same behavioral responses from cats. It is an herb that has been used as a homeopathic remedy for humans for anxiety and insomnia. There are commercially available cat toys that contain Valerian root. It can also be bought dried, similarly to catnip.
  • Silver vine (Actinidia polygama), also known as Japanese catnip, is related to kiwi fruits and has the same active ingredient as Valerian root. Silver vine is harder to buy and more expensive than catnip, as well as some of the other alternatives. The natural pests to the plant that are needed to produce the allomones are found in Japan and China. Therefore, the plant needs to be produced there in order to get the active ingredient that is needed to stimulate our cats’ senses. However,  silver vine can be found on online pet shops.
  • Cat thyme (Teucrium marum) is related to thyme that is used for cooking, but it is not the same. It is found in Spain and the Western Mediterranean and can be used similarly to catnip.
  • Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) is a great option to try if your cat does not respond to catnip. The active ingredient is similar to the one in catnip, but the plant often elicits a stronger response from cats. It is most effective if it is wet.
  • Indian nettle (Acalypha indica) is a plant found in West Africa. The root of the Indian nettle is the part of the plant that is most appealing to cats.
  • Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is an herb from India and Sri Lanka. It makes an excellent addition to a garden not only for its catnip-like qualities, but also as an insect repellent. It can also be incorporated into some delicious recipes! Lemongrass essential oil is toxic to cats and should not be used as an alternative to the plant itself.

A study by Bol and colleagues (2017) investigated the effectiveness of catnip alternatives, including silver vine, Tatarian honeysuckle, and Valerian root on the behavior of domestic cats. They found that catnip and silver vine were the most effective at getting a response from the cats, but that all the plants included in the study were successful at eliciting a positive response. Catnip is the easiest of these plants to find, as it can be found in every cat supply shop in a variety of ways (Bol et al., 2017).

If your cat does not respond specifically to catnip, it is possible they will have a positive response to some of the catnip alternatives, like silver vine, cat thyme, Tatarian honeysuckle, Indian nettle, and lemongrass. Each of these plants may have similar effects to catnip, but each individual cat is different in their response. Some of these alternatives may cause a stronger or more stimulating effect to your cat, which would be better for encouraging activity or play for lazy or overweight cats. Some plants may have more of a calming effect and be better for cats prone to stress and anxiety. Experiment with catnip and various alternatives to learn what your cat likes best, how they respond to each, and then use them on a rotating basis to provide your cat a lot of different types of sensory stimulation.

Providing your cat with plants such as catnip and/or its alternatives is a great way to encourage your cat to use their incredible sense of smell and get great mental and physical stimulation. These plants typically elicit a positive response from cats which is great for their overall mood and welfare. These plants are considered safe for cats and are not considered to be addictive. These types of plants are great at getting cats to be active, particularly in getting them to play which is great for lazy house cats. It is encouraged to provide your cat rotating enrichment on a regular basis that stimulates their senses in a variety of ways, and there is no reason that catnip and its alternatives should not be a regular part of your enrichment plan.

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Works Cited

Bol, S., Caspers, J., Buckingham, L., Anderson-Shelton, G.D., Ridgway, C., Buffington, C.A.T., Schulz, S., and E.M. Bunnik. 2017. Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and catnip (Nepeta cataria). BMC Veterinary Research 13:70.

Bradshaw, J.W.S., Casey, R.A., and S.L. Brown. 2015. The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat. (2nd ed.), p. 142

HSUS. Crazy for catnip. Retrieved March 3, 2019.