Catnip and Its Effect on Cats, Dogs and Humans

Feline in catnip.

Common cat behavior around catnip.

Cat owners—and those that care about cats—know the power that catnip has on cats. If you own a cat and bring catnip into the house, no matter where you put it, the cat will find it.

Once the cat gets the catnip (aka catmint, nepeta) she/he will rub her/his head and shoulders on the plant,  lie down on it or even dash about the house. Cats frequently chew on and eat catnip.

A report sought to explain why and how catmint affects cats. I eagerly read the report, having always been conflicted about giving catnip to my cats. Could they be killing brain cells by smelling or consuming catnip? Is it habit forming? Is catnip a gateway drug for cats?

This about.com catnip/veterinary page was also helpful in answering my questions.

Nepetalactone is the ingredient in catmint—a member of the mint family—that makes cats crazy. Rather  it makes 70% of cats crazy; about 30% of cats are unaffected by catnip.

In addition, your new kitten will most likely not respond to catnip (good news, as kittens are plenty wild without drugs). Generally kittens under 12 weeks of age are not affected by this plant.

Cats contact nepetalactone via their olfactory organs. It has been suggested that catnip affects cats in a pheromone-like manner. I defer to the experts and various links here for further explanation. Except to say that it would be cool if a cat could be hooked up to a fMRI scanner and given catnip, to see the regions of the brain that are affected. I asked an animal behaviorist about this, and she noted that it wouldn’t work very well, because cats don’t respond well to the “sit” command. The cat would need to stay very still for an fMRI scan to be done.

Nepeta sp.are a lovely, low spreading perennial in many parts of the world, including here in southern Wisconsin. Nepeta is native to Europe, not the US, but both the wild and cultivated forms grow happily here. Apparently some early settler to the New World cared enough about their cat to bring this favorite feline herb along.

Nepeta sp.

Perennials including the "Walkers Low" variety of Nepeta sp.

I’m a gardener and am especially fond of perennial plants, so when the gardening staff of our fair city started using a lovely, low-growing plant with pretty silver-green leaves and a long-lived blue blossom, I took note. Learning that it was Nepeta sp., I visited a local greenhouse and bought a few plants. It was quickly apparent that this plant spread—by the next year it made some good-sized mounds in the garden.

Affect of Catnip on Dogs

I live in a mixed household and while the cats are indoors all the time, the dogs are free to wander the yard. Our next-door neighbors toss bread into their yards, which squirrels grab and “plant” in our garden. Thus the dogs are always sniffing through the plants, looking for the bits of bread.

Due to its spreading nature, more and more of those plants are Nepeta sp.  Luckily this isn’t a problem, since catmint doesn’t affect dogs, right?

That’s what the experts say. The dogs  and I know otherwise. 

My indoor cats live vicariously through the dogs and their outdoor adventures. When we come back from a walk, the cats are always at the door, not to greet me but rather to sniff the dogs.

This is not a problem, normally. The dogs find the cats sniffing and climbing on them somewhat annoying, but the attention is usually tolerable and can be shaken off by the dog stepping away. The dogs and I walk in an area with fox, mink, etc., so it’s not surprising that the dogs carry scent home on their coats and feet.

On the other hand, bring a dog into the house that has walked through a patch of Nepeta sp. and you’ve got some serious cat attention going on. The affected dog is suddenly pursued by a cat intent on chewing or rolling on whatever foot has contacted the plant. The dogs recognize the seriousness of the cats’ intent and look worried.

The first time this happened,  I was preparing for 4–5 hours away from the house. Seeing the cats persistence, I had visions of coming home to dogs with toes raw from cats chewing on them.

An action plan came to mind: “Need to remove oily substance from dog’s feet, safely and quickly.” A certain dishwashing liquid with a reputation for grease cutting seemed a cure. After a quick scrub I put the dog in a cat-proof room.

Affect of Catnip on Humans

While reading the catmint literature I was surprised to learn that this herb is a “natural sedative and digestive aid” when taken by cat owners (and other humans). 

This lifehacker post describes how to make catnip tea, to enjoy such benefits.

Additional benefits are reported to include: Anesthetic, antibiotic, anti rheumatic, antispasmodic, astringent, diuretic, relief of muscular aches and pains.

There are a number of types of Nepeta sp., varying in scent and flower color. Truly feline-conscious cat persons should note that the common catnip, Nepeta cataria with white flowers, is reputed to be the most appealing to cats.

However, please do not go to your garden, cut some catnip and make yourself a cup of tea, because:

  1. There are catnip and herbal experts; I am neither. Please seek the advice of an expert practicing herbalist before consuming any catnip or Nepeta sp.
  2. If you own cats, the herbalist can advise as to the best way to enjoy your cup of Nepeta tea without the risk of your cat trying to rub or chew on you during or afterwards.
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Kari Kenefick

Kari has been a science writer/editor for Promega since 1996. Prior to that she enjoyed working in veterinary microbiology/immunology, and has an M.S. in Bacteriology, U of WI-Madison. Favorite topics include infectious disease, inflammation, aging, exercise, nutrition and personality traits. When not writing, she enjoys training her dogs in agility and obedience. About the practice of writing, as we say for cell-based assays, "add-mix-measure".

14 thoughts on “Catnip and Its Effect on Cats, Dogs and Humans

  1. Thank You, Ragdoll and English Golden Retriever Mom. Must admit that when fall came this year, I pulled out a few of our mounds of Nepeta sp.–it was starting to take over the garden. And the cats got out one day, got into this catmint plant, and, well, let’s just say one of them had a “bad trip”. Took him two days to recover. ; )

  2. So dogs don’t react to catnip then? It only affects them in the way that the cats around them will be attracted to them, right?

  3. Jamie-Lee, Thanks for your comment. And Yes, as I understand it, dogs do not react to the nepeta or catmint extract. My dogs walked through the plant while sniffing for rabbits, not because catmint/cat nip holds any attaction for dogs. Sorry, didn’t mean to imply that the dogs were attracted to or affected by catnip.

  4. So do you think if I rubbed just a little catnip on my puppy that my kitten will like her in faster time. Just brought puppy home yesterday and I know it will take time for our six month old kitten to accept her, but catnip could be a
    good incentive..

    • Thanks for your comment Julie and what a lively animal crowd at your house! One issue with catnip is that its hard to predict how the cat will react. How about giving the catnip to the cat instead of applying it to the puppy? Might be safest for the dog? Good news is most cats love what they hate; so feline of them: ) good luck! -Kari

      From my iPhone

  5. This photo is actually of catmint, which cats may like, but catnip is a different plant, not as ornamental. Both are in the Nepeta family. There has been some research done about catnip being useful to keep Mosquitos away, but I contacted the researcher and he did not know if the same was true of catmint. Just FYI.

    • Thanks and oh yes, cats Definitely like catmint (in research I found this name used interchangeably with catnip–both Nepeta sp. as you say). One of my housecats got out last year and I had to go drag him out of the catmint planted in my front bed. He was a goner, in terms of intoxication, by the time I got there.
      Thanks for the info!

  6. does catnip make squirrels go crazy. I see them rollin and jumping and sprinting from tree to tree just for the fun of it it seems. must be catnip!?

    • Thanks for your comment, Wayne. While I don’t have an answer to your question (I don’t know about the effect of catnip on squirrels) have seen this exact squirrel behavior, just last night in fact, under a big tree. Squirrels, acting…squirrely. Fun to see but it makes the dogs crazy.

  7. Our Great Dane loves catniip mice. A friend knits the mice fills them with fiberfill and catnip. Maddie will chew on them a bit then hold the mouse in her mouth with the tail hanging out. Within 4 or 5 minutes she is blissed out. The effects last a couple hours, so just before a housefull of company she gets her mouse out and plays with it. When company comes they are amazed at how calm and relaxed she is. We first noticed it 5 years ago with her first catnip mouse.( Maddie is 8 years old now.)

    • Thanks for your comment, Jaci and Maddie! What a great story and who knows, maybe Maddie has some cougar in her? I’d love to give my poodles such a relaxant , truly, sometimes. Kari

      From my iPhone

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