Copyright 2007-2008 Sarah Hartwell


Catnip, or cat-mint, is Nepeta cataria and is a type of mint originally from North Africa and the Mediterranean. It is now widely grown by cat lovers in the UK, North America and Australia and has naturalised in parts of the USA. It was originally valued as a herbal remedy and hot infusion in Europe.

Other members of the Nepeta genus are also labelled catmint, especially Nepeta faassenii (N. racemosa N. nepetella; Faassen's Nepeta or Faassen's Catnip), Nepeta mussinii and Nepeta nepetella available from plant nurseries. These provoke less reaction than Nepeta cataria (True Catnip).

Depending on which studies you read, between 50% and 75% of cats react to nepetalactone, the active ingredient of catnip, following puberty. Personal experience suggests it's closer to the two-thirds mark. Although affected cats may appear spaced out, the reaction is harmless and temporary though some cats may become frequent users of their catnip toys! Cats will respond to both fresh and dried catnip, though the active ingredient is more concentrated in the dried leaf. The best and safest source is the catnip bud. Catnip sprays are also available, but of variable quality; they can be used for refreshing catnip toys.

Scientists have studied cats' physiological reaction to nepetalactone. It is psychosexual response (in other words a mental aphrodisiac!) in both male and female cats. The ability to respond to catnip is hereditary and is an autosomal dominant trait. Although it is autosomal (not gender-related), anecdotally, the reaction is stronger in males. Cats that haven't inherited the gene will not respond to catnip. Breeds whose ancestors originated from areas where catnip is not indigenous typically lack the required gene and won't react to catnip. Most cats in Australia are not susceptible to catnip, since Australian cats are drawn from a relatively closed genetic pool (the 6 month quarantine is a deterrent to importing new cats). This is liable to change among pedigree cats due to importation of breeding stock from Europe and North America.

Nepetalactone is a terpene. Cats detect it through their olfactory epithelium and not through their vomeronasal organ. At the olfactory epithelium it appears to bind to one or more olfactory receptors where it probably mimics a cat pheromone, most likely the cat urine odourant MMB (3-mercapto-3-methylbutan-1-ol). The stimulation of pheromonic receptors results in a temporary euphoric or giddy state. Because the response is associated with a sexual response, cats under the age of puberty (which can occur any time between 4 and 6 months depending on the individual) don't respond to catnip. They may respond once they are sexually mature and neutering has no effect on the ability to detect nepetalactone. Kittens below 8 weeks don't respond to catnip.

The catnip effect includes: meowing or growling while rolling in catnip, rubbing their faces on areas where catnip is sprinkled or sprayed, drooling, kneading, a dreamy or spaced out mood, chasing invisible prey, doing yoga-like contortion or simply lying upside down waggling their paws in the air. In other words, even the most staid old cat can become giddy and undignified for a short while. I used to sell my catnip toys for charity with the line about "bringing out the kitten in your cat." A word of warning though: afected cats can become possessive of their catnip toys and some may become aggressive as they come down from the catnip reaction. It takes up to two hours for the cat to "reset" after which it can come back to the catnip and have the same response as before. Cats can become immune to catnip if exposed too often; twice a week is usually considered ample. Cats may also eat catnip (fresh or dried) during the catnip high. Most often, cats that seem to be eating catnip are usually just pushing the leaves up against the roof of their mouth. As long as the catnip clean this is safe although dried sections of stalk should be removed as they can be sharp. When eaten, it acts as a mild sedative the opposite to the manic reaction exhibited when it is sniffed! Edible catnip treats are sold in pet stores, but these are a waste of time and money as the catnip doesn't produce the enjoyable kittenish behaviour when eaten. Don't be tempted to put catnip in food as this could upset the cat's eating habits. Nepetalactone degrades when exposed to sunlight, so store dried catnip in a sealed dark container made from metal or ceramic (I use a small tin in my store cupboard). Don't use plastic containers for long-term storage as the plastic smell seems to taint the catnip. Clear glass contains such as jam-jars don't block UV rays; if you use these store the jar in a cupboard or drawer out of the sunlight. Alternatively, store catnip in the freezer. This keeps it fresher for longer. Stored well, the active ingredient in catnip lasts for ages. I once found a forgotten can of catnip harvested about 10 years ago and it was still strong enough to produce a reaction.

The catnip reaction can also be seen in big cats and is used by some zoos to provide stimulation and environmental enrichment. I have seen it given to both captive lions and tigers. Plants that contain actinidine or dihydroactinidiolide have similar effects on some cats.

* Barry, D. Catnip: The Key Chemical Responsible For The Herb's Frisk-Inducing Effects On Felines Is Nepetalactone. Chemical & Engineering News Volume 83, Number 31 p. 39 (August 1, 2005 ) (ISSN 0009-2347)
* Hart BL, Leedy MG. Analysis of the catnip reaction: mediation by olfactory system, not vomeronasal organ. Behav Neural Biol. 1985 Jul;44(1):38-46.
* Samuel M. McElvain, R. D. Bright and P. R. Johnson (1941). "The Constituents of the Volatile Oil of Catnip. I. Nepetalic Acid, Nepetalactone and Related Compounds". J. Am. Chem. Soc. 63 (6): 15581563.
* Tucker, A. O. and Tucker, S. S. "Catnip and the Catnip Response," Economic Botany, 42(2), 1988, pp. 214-231.


About 30% of cats react to wood from Lonicera tartarica (a type of honeysuckle). It contains a chemical similar to the active ingredient in catnip (nepetalactone). Cats that don't respond to catnip may respond to honeysuckle wood while those that respond to catnip might not respond to honeysuckle wood. From personal experience, none of the cats I tried this with responded to it, but they did respond to catnip.

The reactions include rubbing against the wood (or the toy that contains the wood), licking it and wrestling with the wood/toy held in the paws. It isn't recommended to give the raw wood to cats as it can cause choking if they bite pieces off of it. However, I've safely given my cats larger sections of wood.

If you want to grow cat-honeysuckle, bear in mind that the berries are poisonous. Only the wood is safe to give to cats. It is safest to wrap the wood, or sawdust/shavings made from it, in fabric so the cat can't choke on slivers.


Valerian extract is available from health stores; the best type is the gloopy, brown "herbal extract" (it is highly staining so be careful what you drip it onto) rather than the colourless form. It comes from a perennial plant called that grows 4 6 ft high and has fragrant reddish (sometimes white) flowers. In humans, valerian extract is taken in drink to aid sleep or reduce anxiety.

The cat attractant chemical in Valerian turns out to be actinidine, a pyridine derivative present in the essential oil of valerian, which causes similar effects to nepetalactone. Catnip-responders are often also valerian-responders. Older information may refer to the active ingredient in the root as a terpenoid chemical called Valerinone which is chemically similar to nepetalactone (the active compound in catnip). Valerinone isn't a term used in chemistry. To humans, valerian has an unpleasant smell akin to sweaty socks, hence the Greek name Phu (i.e "pooh!"). To me it smells like the sort of snot you get during a head cold.

Cats that don't respond catnip may respond to valerian. I've found this to the case with one of my cat who had no reaction to catnip, but who had a strong reaction to valerian herbal extract dripped on her scratching mat. The reaction includes licking or biting the valerian impregnated toy, wrestling with it in their front paws, rubbing the face on it, drooling and becoming highly excitable. In some cats, the excitability can lead to possessiveness or aggression while they are in on a valerian high. So let your cat enjoy it and keep your hands clear until s/he's finished.

Valerian is available in dried form or more commonly as an liquid extract. Get the gloopy brown extract it's stinky, but it seems to give the best reaction. Dried root can be used inside cat toys.

Valeriana celtica and some Actinidia species may also have an affect on cats.

Zhao Yun-peng, Wang Xiao-yun, Wang Zhi-can, Lu Yin, FU Cheng-xin, Chen Shao-yuan. Essential oil of Actinidia macrosperma, a catnip response kiwi endemic to China J. Zhejiang Univ. Science B 2006 7(9):708-712


Gardeners may find their Silver Vine plants destroyed by enthusiastic cats. The plant, known as matatabi in Japan, contains not one, but two cat attractant compounds. Actinidine is a pyridine derivative found in both of valerian and Silver Vine and has similar effects to nepetalactone. Silver vine/matatabi also contains dihydroactinidiolide, a volatile terpene with a sweet, tea-like fragrance and also a cat attractant.

In Japan, Silver vine is commonly known as matatabi and well-known for being the "Japanese Catnip". This is reflected in the saying "neko ni matatabi, joro ni koban" (Silver vine to a cat, a coin to a prostitute) which means to put someone in a good mood by giving them what they desire.

Other Actinidia species may also have an affect on cats.

Zhao Yun-peng, Wang Xiao-yun, Wang Zhi-can, Lu Yin, FU Cheng-xin, Chen Shao-yuan. Essential oil of Actinidia macrosperma, a catnip response kiwi endemic to China J. Zhejiang Univ. Science B 2006 7(9):708-712


Cat Thyme is a small shrub native to Spain and the Western Mediterranean where it is an evergreen shrub reaching 3 4 ft tall. Despite its name it not a type of thyme, but is related to germander. When bruised, the leaves release a pungent aromatic smell. Some cats seem to prefer this to catnip, but those the prefer it may simply lack the gene for catnip response.


Buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata), an American plant that occurs as far south as Virginia and California, contains a cat attractant chemical called mitsugashiwalactone that triggers a similar reaction to catnip in susceptible cats.

Northern groundcone (Boschniakia rossica) is a parasitic member of the broomrape family and found in north-western North America. It contains 2 cat attractant compounds, boschniakine and boschnialactone.

Yellowbells (Tecoma stans) is a small tree native to Florida and contains both boschniakine and actinidine and may be attractive to cats.

Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans) is a woody vine that may also contains boschniakine, but there are no reports of its attractiveness to cats.

Other plants that have been reported to attract cats: Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus, sometimes called Cranberry Bush and most commonly found in cultivation as the Snowball Tree), the perennial Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus/Hop Marjoram), the spring-flowering annual Baby Blue-eyes (Nemophila menziesii) and the Zimbabwean plant Zinziba (Lippia javanica aka Verbena javanica).

While many of the above may be attractive to cats, that does not make them safe to chew or eat as they may contain other chemicals that are toxic to cats. It is far safer to stick to catnip, valerian, tartarian honeysuckle and cat thyme.


The volatile chemicals that are currently known to cause the catnip effect in cats are:

* actinidine
* actinidiolide
* boschnialactone
* boschniakine
* dihydroactinidiolide
* dihydronepetalactone
* epinepetalactone
* iridomyrmecin
* isodihydronepetalactone
* mitsugashiwalactone
* nepetalactone (classical catnip)
* neonepetalactone
* onikulactone