Sign Up for Cat Talk
Get the latest health and behavior news and
advice from the veterinarians at Tufts University.

Feature May 2017 Issue

The Allure of Catnip

Roughly 30 percent of cats donít respond to it, but there are three other plants that might do the trick.


Cvrgrl |

Thereís no mistaking the delightful response catnip elicits from most cats. But three other plants have been found to to be safe and intoxicating, as well.

As we all know, many cats just can’t enough of catnip — nepeta cataria, a fragrantly intoxicating plant native to Asia — although why it has such an effect on cats has remained a mystery. However, recent research may shed new light on the riddle — as well as identify a few other substances that may delight your cat even more.

Cats react to catnip when they inhale the scent of nepetalactone, the active ingredient in nepeta cataria. It is a terpene, an aromatic compound in the same family as the chemicals that give marijuana its characteristic scent. The relationship between cats and catnip was identified in the 1940s, although it still remains unclear which genes cause cats to react so feverishly.

Even more curious is that not all cats are susceptible to catnip. Some species of cats (big and small) aren’t affected at all, while others experience only mild effects. A new study conducted at UC Davis — and headed by Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD, DACVN — tested the effects of catnip on 100 cats to try to understand the connection once and for all.

The team discovered some alternatives that had similar effects when imbibed by cats — silver vine, Tatarian honeysuckle and valerian root. In total, 80 percent of the feline test subjects responded to silver vine (a higher response rate than catnip, which got just under a 70 percent response), with valerian root and honeysuckle trailing with approximately 40 percent each.

Some cats who didn’t react to the catnip did react to one of the other stimulants, and only 23 of the cats responded to all four plants (only six cats reacted to nothing at all). The majority of the cats responded to one, two or three of the plants with varying degrees of overlap.

That’s good news for cat owners whose pets don’t respond to catnip. Dr. Buffington is hoping that the discovery offers some environmental enrichment to indoor house cats who can benefit from extra stimulation. — Catnip staff

Comments (6)

Valerian tincture is used as a calmative for horses and probably other species as well. I've never noticed any bad smell from it and it definitely works!

Posted by: Tripleransom | March 13, 2018 11:32 AM    Report this comment

The flowers of valerian are pleasant. The root, which is recommended in the article, smells TERRIBLE. But don't just take my word for it. From Wikipedia: "Valeric acid...has a very unpleasant odor. It is found naturally in the flowering perennial flowering plant valerian.....Volatile esters of valeric acid tend to have pleasant odors and are used in perfume..." In other words, you have to mess with it for it to smell pleasant. Most people seem to think that straight valerian root smells like "dirty socks" but I'm sticking with dog poop. I have taken it as a sleep aide and if you burp afterwards, you will clear out the room.

Posted by: Atlartist | March 12, 2018 11:18 PM    Report this comment

I grow catnip year round for my cats. I've noticed that some cats who are initially indifferent to cat nip become much more interested after repeated exposure and eventually respond with normal enthusiasm. I grow the plant in a huge plantar with an inverted wire hanging basket cage over the plant so that the cats don't destroy the plant. Occasionally, I find a cat zonked out on top of the caged plant.

Posted by: gatofelis | March 12, 2018 7:32 PM    Report this comment

Are you sure you have true Valerian, it doesn't smell bad, in fact it's flowers are used in perfumes. People have used it as a sleep aid. Check it out on the Internet.

Posted by: Neverscat | March 12, 2018 1:56 PM    Report this comment

Before you invest in valerian, you should be aware that it smells like dog poop! It's BAD.

Posted by: Atlartist | March 12, 2018 12:39 PM    Report this comment

Thank you. I am glad to have some ideas for tempting an older foster cat living with me. She doesn't seem interested in catnip which I grow in my backyard so I'll try some of the other suggested plants.

Posted by: JB in Carp. | March 12, 2018 12:29 PM    Report this comment

New to Tufts Catnip? Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In