You've just returned from the pet store with a treat for your cat-- a new stuffed toy. You toss it to your cat, and witness an entertaining display from your pet. She tosses the toy into the air, rubs her face against it repeatedly, mews and chirps in delight, then rolls on the ground, the toy clutched to her belly.
And you may wonder to yourself, "What just happened?"
Cat Reactions to Catnip
Most likely, your cat's new toy contained catnip, and she is one of the lucky ones that can sense and react to the harmless herb. Only about 50% of cats, including wild cats such as lions and tigers, react to catnip, a sensitivity caused by a gene. If your cat has the gene, she may behave in several of these ways when exposed to catnip or toys that contain catnip.
- Rubbing her face, head, or body on the catnip or toy
- Rolling and flipping on the ground
- Licking, chewing, or eating the catnip or toy
- Sneezing, sniffing, and shaking her head
- Chirping, meowing, growling, or purring
Why Some Cats Like Catnip
Such behaviors typically last about 10 minutes after your cat encounters catnip, and are caused by an essential oil in the plant's leaves, stems, and seeds called nepetalactone. This oil is believed to mimic a cat's pheromones and stimulate the part of the cat's brain that reacts to the pheromones. The reaction engages all the cat's senses: touch, smell, sight, sound, and taste.
The reactions can be amusing and a bit surprising the first time you see one, but veterinarians assert that the oil and the plant are harmless. The plant may even tempt indoor cats into playing more often, as they seek out toys that contain the herb. Some behaviorists even recommend rubbing catnip on a scratching post to encourage a cat to scratch on appropriate surfaces.
If your cat is one of the lucky ones that respond to catnip, you can offer her a wide range of catnip products. Some of the more popular options available in pet stores and the pet sections of your local convenience store include:
- Dried catnip. The herb comes in packages of flakes, pellets, or dried leaves and stems. Sprinkle some on the floor and let your cat roll around in it, or stuff some into an old toy to make it interesting again.
- Catnip toys. These come in all shapes and sizes, with popular options including small mice, stuffed dogs and even tiny fruits and vegetables, all made more enticing with dried catnip stuffed inside or catnip spray liberally applied.
- Catnip spray. While the active ingredient of catnip may not be as strong in a spray as in fresh or dried catnip, such a spray can be used to entice your cat to use a scratching post or cat bed.
- Fresh catnip plants. Consider growing your own small pot of catnip to share with your cat. The plant grows well in partial to full sun in outdoor gardens (and can grow as tall as three to four feet), and also grows well indoors when placed in a sunny window. If you decide to grow the plant indoors, remember that your cat will be attracted to it! You may want to place it somewhere out of her reach.