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Catnip Facts

| Updated September 26, 2017

Catnip is an herb commonly dried, put into cloth toys and given to cats to play with. It has an intoxicating effect on cats. Large wild cats like lions, pumas and leopards enjoy catnip as much as house cats do. Cat owners should have an understanding of the facts about catnip before giving it to their cat.


Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb which is in the same plant family as mint. The plant grows to a height of two to three feet and produces small white or lilac flowers. Foliage on catnip plants is green with a slightly gray or blue tint. The leaves are heart shaped with serrated edges and covered with a light fuzz.


Catnip is often used to make herbal tea. It is reputed to help alleviate cold and flue symptoms and digestive problems. Many people enjoy the flavor of catnip tea. Catnip oil is used as a lure in traps to catch bobcats and mountain lions. It is most commonly given to house cats in toys and as a treat.


Catnip contains nepetalactone oil which is the substance that affects cats. This oil is contained in the leaves and stems. Cats detect the catnip by smell. Sniffing it first causes the reaction. Cats will also roll on it or rub against it. When given access to the plant in its natural form, they will chew on or eat the leaves to get more of the nepetalactone oil.

Attraction to catnip is genetic. Some cats (about 30 percent) are not affected by catnip and are not interested in it. Cats that do not inherit the catnip gene will not pay any attention to it. Cats that do inherit the gene do not develop an interest in catnip until after they are three months old. Very young kittens under eight weeks old are often repulsed by it and will avoid it.


Cats feel the effects of catnip for five to ten minutes or so after smelling it, and not all cats react the same. Some cats will become very aggressive to the point of trying to fight with other cats within the household. Others will become briefly hyperactive, run around and play until exhausted. They may simply roll around happily on the floor. They can exhibit combinations of these behaviors to varying degrees. When cats are given access to catnip plants and eat the leaves, it tends to have a sedative effect.

Catnip is not an addictive substance. The cats will not suffer withdrawal if it is taken away from them. They also will not overdose on it. Cats will simply walk away when they have had enough.


Many dried catnip products have fillers added to them. Fresh good quality 100 percent catnip is dark green and smells like mint. It will still have a strong enough odor to smell it through the packaging.

Stored in the freezer in an air-tight container, catnip will keep fresh for about one year. It will no longer smell fresh when opened once it has gone bad.