Catnip Countdown. How Long Until Your Cat Goes Wild?

What is catnip?

Catnip (botanical name Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb from the mint family Lamiaceae. It is a short-lived perennial plant that grows to about 3-4 feet tall and wide, with small pale purple or white flowers produced in clusters at the ends of stems in late spring through autumn [1]. The grayish green leaves are heart-shaped, toothed, and have a fragrant, minty aroma. Other common names for catnip include catmint and catswort.

How catnip affects cats

Catnip contains a compound called nepetalactone that has stimulant effects on cats (Purina, 2023). When cats smell catnip, the nepetalactones bind to olfactory receptors in their nose and trigger neurons that activate the brain’s pleasure center (Live Science, 2022). This causes the release of dopamine and other feel-good neurotransmitters, inducing a temporary euphoric state and making cats feel excited and playful.

cat rolling in pile of catnip

Not all cats are affected by catnip – studies show only about 50-80% of cats exhibit a response (Vox, 2017). Genetics may play a role, as attraction to catnip seems to be inherited. Young kittens under 6 months old also do not respond to catnip yet, likely because their brains are still developing.

When cats respond to catnip, typical behaviors include sniffing, chewing, head shaking, rolling, rubbing, vocalizing and pursuit/attack of the catnip toy. The euphoric “high” effects generally last 5-15 minutes before wearing off.

Active chemicals in catnip

The active chemical in catnip responsible for the response in cats is called nepetalactone (1). Nepetalactone is an organic compound derived from the catnip plant Nepeta cataria. There are actually two isomers of nepetalactone: E,Z-nepetalactone and Z,E-nepetalactone. These isomers cause the response in domestic cats, with the E,Z-isomer being the most potent and active (2).

Nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors in a cat’s nose, which triggers a response in the cat’s central nervous system. This produces the characteristic catnip response of euphoria, playfulness, relaxed movements, and rubbing/rolling on the catnip. So in summary, the organic chemical nepetalactone is responsible for causing the response in cats when they are exposed to catnip.

How Catnip is Consumed

Cats experience the effects of catnip in different ways, depending on how they consume it. The most common ways are sniffing, licking, and eating.

cat licking a catnip filled toy

Sniffing: When cats sniff catnip, the nepetalactone molecules bind to olfactory receptors in their nose. This triggers a response in the brain that causes euphoric effects. Sniffing catnip leads to the classic signs of rolling, rubbing, head shaking, and short-term giddiness.

Licking: Some cats will lick or chew on catnip plants or toys. Licking allows absorption through mucous membranes in the mouth, which leads to similar euphoric effects as sniffing. The effect may be milder and slower to onset when licked.

Eating: Ingesting catnip causes different effects than sniffing or licking. The nepetalactone reacts differently in the digestive system. Eating catnip generally has a calming or sleep-inducing effect on cats. It can also aid digestion and relieve stomach upset.

Immediate effects of catnip

Catnip has an almost immediate effect when consumed by cats, typically within 5-15 minutes. The most common reactions are excitement and playfulness. Cats under the influence of catnip often roll around, paw at the air, rub against objects, meow, vocalize more than usual, and chase imaginary objects. Some cats become very energetic and zoom wildly around the house. Others may become more relaxed and loving. These hyperactive effects typically last around 5-10 minutes before fading.

cat playing energetically after eating catnip

The chemicals in catnip, nepetalactone in particular, are believed to mimic feline “happy” pheromones and bind to receptors in the cat’s nose and mouth. This produces a temporary euphoric state, similar to how cat pheromones induce contentment and relaxation. So catnip essentially tricks the cat’s brain into thinking it is interacting with another cat and experiencing those feel-good pheromones. This makes the cat playful, excitable, and joyful. The short-lived high explains the frenzied activity and energy bursts.

Most cats will engage in longer play sessions and high-energy antics when given catnip. Owners often provide catnip-filled toys to encourage exercise and stimulation. The effects also relieve boredom and stress. But it should be given in moderation since excessive catnip can cause overstimulation and anxiety in some cats once the high wears off.

How long effects last

According to the Humanes Society article, when cats smell catnip, the effects usually last for about 10 minutes, after which your cat loses interest. PetMD notes that catnip effects wear off anywhere from 5-15 minutes. During this time frame, cats will exhibit playful and stimulated behaviors associated with being under the influence of catnip. Once the initial catnip response wears off, it can take 1-2 hours for the cat to fully reset and become susceptible to the effects again. So in summary, the catnip high lasts around 5-15 minutes before wearing off.

Factors influencing catnip response

There are several factors that influence how cats respond to catnip, including:

Genetics – Catnip sensitivity is inherited. Around 70-80% of cats have the genes necessary to detect nepetalactone, the compound in catnip that causes the response. Cats lacking these genes are immune to catnip’s effects.[1]

Weight – Heavier cats tend to be more sensitive to catnip. This may be because heavier cats have more fat cells to absorb the nepetalactone and deliver it to the brain.[2]

Form consumed – Cats respond more strongly to dried catnip as it contains higher nepetalactone concentrations (4-6%) compared to the fresh herb (0.3-1.3%). Extracts and catnip-based toys can also elicit strong reactions.[3]

Overall, genetics appear to be the primary determiner of catnip sensitivity. But a cat’s weight and the specific form of catnip consumed can also influence the intensity and duration of the catnip response.

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/experts-how-does-catnip-work-on-cats/
[2] https://avsab.org/whats-the-point-of-the-catnip-response/
[3] https://www.purina.co.uk/articles/cats/behaviour/understanding-cats/cats-and-catnip

Refractory period

After cats experience the effects of catnip, there is a refractory period where they will not react to catnip again for 1-2 hours. During this time, exposing the cat to more catnip will not produce any effects. This is because catnip contains nepetalactone, which binds to receptors in the cat’s olfactory system. These receptors become saturated after initial catnip exposure and need time to reset before they can bind to nepetalactone again and produce effects. Research indicates the average refractory period lasts around 1-2 hours [1]. However, the exact length can vary between individual cats. Some may only need an hour for their receptors to reset, while others may need closer to 2 hours. The refractory period also tends to be longer after very intense catnip exposure. Understanding the refractory period can help cat owners moderate catnip use and avoid over-exposure.

Safety concerns

While catnip is generally considered safe for cats to consume, there are some dosage and toxicity considerations pet owners should keep in mind. The active chemical that causes the euphoric effects in cats is called nepetalactone. Consuming too much catnip can lead to vomiting or diarrhea as the digestive system tries to flush out the excess chemicals (Petcarerx).

person sprinkling a small amount of catnip

Signs of catnip toxicity include lethargy, lack of coordination, and vomiting. This can occur if a cat consumes a very large amount of catnip. However, serious toxicity is rare as cats tend to lose interest in catnip once they have had their fill. It’s best to limit a cat’s exposure to catnip to avoid overconsumption. Only give your cat catnip occasionally and remove any uneaten catnip after 10-15 minutes (The Conversation).

When used responsibly, catnip is not considered dangerous. But owners should be aware of proper dosage and monitor their cat’s reaction to avoid toxicity.

Other cat attractants

While catnip is beloved by many cats, some felines do not respond to it. Luckily there are some alternatives that can provide a similar experience.

Two popular alternatives to catnip are valerian root and silver vine. Valerian root contains actinidine which is chemically similar to nepetalactone, the compound in catnip that attracts cats. Silver vine also contains compounds like nepetalactone that induce a euphoric reaction in cats (https://svenandrobbie.com/2019/10/29/catnip-and-its-alternatives/).

Other cat attractants include chamomile, tatarian honeysuckle, and lemon grass. Chamomile can be rubbed on toys or added to treats. The citrus scent of lemon grass is appealing to some cats. Honeysuckle contains chemicals similar to nepetalactone (https://catingtonpost.com/5-alternatives-for-cats-who-hate-catnip/).

Trying out different herbs and scents can help find an appealing alternative if a cat does not respond to catnip.

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