When Can Kittens Have Catnip? Let’s Find Out!

black cat laying amid catnip plant -when can kittens have catnip?

Last updated on April 3rd, 2024 at 01:39 pm

Welcome, cat lovers! If you’re a kitten owner or simply a feline enthusiast, you’ve probably wondered about introducing your furry friend to catnip.

Today, we’re unpacking everything you need to know about kittens and catnip, from the science behind their reactions to practical tips for a smooth introduction. Let’s get started!

What is Catnip?

Catnip, a member of the mint family, has a fascinating effect on our feline companions, mainly due to an active ingredient called nepetalactone.

This chemical substance interacts with the sensory neurons in a cat’s brain, often leading to euphoric reactions, such as rolling, purring, or leaping. Some cats get very chill and relaxed, sitting or laying very still and staring into space.

The effects typically last about 10 to 15 minutes. Afterwards cats usually lose interest and won’t respond to catnip again for a while. It can take up to two hours for a cat to “reset” and become susceptible to catnip’s effects again

when can kittens have catnip - closeup of a catnip plant showing the soft furry leaves and small purple flowers

When Do Kittens Begin to React to Catnip?

Not every cat responds to the scent of catnip in the same way—some may become more playful and energetic, while others simply relax or appear to show no interest whatsoever. Kittens are among those that do not seem to be affected at all. 

The primary reason for this observation is believed to be developmental. Kittens are still growing their sensory and neurological systems in their early months, which means they may not really be able to pick up or respond to the specific compounds in catnip that usually get a reaction from adult cats.

Additionally, some cats never  appear to develop a sensitivity to catnip, regardless of age.  Those that do develop a noticeable response get it at around the same time they reach sexual maturity, leading to the natural assumption that catnip response is related to the onset of puberty in the cat.

Is it True Kittens Have Absolutely No Reaction to Catnip?

Contrary to the accepted notion that kittens have no reaction to catnip whatsoever, research suggests that a kitten’s apparent lack of response to catnip is not actually a lack of response at all.

A 2017 study by Espín-Iturbe et al. (1), based on observations of both adult cats and kittens, presents a fascinating and somewhat unconventional view of how kittens and cats react to catnip, challenging the widely held belief that young kittens do not respond to catnip.

This study discovered that cats’ reaction to catnip isn’t just a simple yes or no response, but falls on a spectrum with active and passive behaviors.

Around 20% of the cats in the study displayed the typical active euphoric behaviors, while the remaining 80% showed passive responses. The intensity of both active and passive reactions varied among the cats in the study.

While none of the kittens in the study showed an active response, as expected, all kittens DID show some type of passive response.

These passive behaviors, including maintaining a sphinx-like position, decreased vocalizations, and reduced movements, indicate a reaction to catnip that has not been widely acknowledged or studied before.

What this means is that while kittens may not display the more well-known, boisterous reactions to catnip, they likely do still have a reaction and sensitivity to this herb. However, they will not show an active, euphoric reaction until they start to mature between 3-6 months of age.

young siamese cat sitting behind a catnip plant on a blue background, illustrating "when can kittens have catnip"

When Can Kittens Have Catnip?

You’ve likely been told by one or more people that it is pointless to give your kitten catnip. However, based on the research I’ve just described, there may actually be some benefit to giving it to your kitten after all. 

The passive responses seen in kittens—such as reduced movement and quieter behavior—suggest  that catnip can serve as a mild stress reliever for kittens and a tool for acclimatization to their environment.

A gentle introduction to catnip at a young age can also pave the way for more predictable reactions to the herb as they mature, potentially making it easier for pet owners to use catnip as a positive reinforcement or comfort tool in the cat’s adult life.

Introducing Catnip to Your Kitten

Even though kittens under 6 months may not appear to react to catnip, it’s completely safe for them once they have been weaned.

For cat owners looking to introduce their pets to catnip, here are a few tips:

  • Choose the Right Time: Give catnip to your kitten during a time when you can supervise their interaction with it. This helps ensure they don’t have an adverse reaction and allows you to gauge their level of interest and enjoyment.
  • Start Small: Use a very small amount of catnip (whether it’s fresh catnip leaves, catnip sprays, or a sprinkle of dried catnip) to observe how your kitten responds. Remember that their response may change as they mature, so  it’s important to monitor their reactions each time you use it.
  • Be Patient: Some cats may take some time to warm up to catnip and its effects.
  • Homemade Toys: You don’t have to spend a lot on catnip toys. A can or bag of dried catnip can go a long way without breaking the bank. The cats don’t care what their toy looks like, they just care about the catnip in it. My cat’s favorite is an old sock filled with catnip and knotted at the end. We also have an old reusable face mask folded and tied around some loose catnip, and a child-proof plastic bottle with holes poked in the lid. There’s lots of options if you use your imagination!
  • Monitor Reactions: Not all reactions to catnip are favorable. While it’s rare, some cats may experience an upset stomach or show aggressive behavior. If your kitten or cat shows any signs of distress, remove the catnip and consult with a veterinarian.
closeup of a brown and white tabby sniffing at a spilled jar of catnip illustration "when can kittens have catnip"

Beyond Just Toys: Catnip as a Training Aid

Catnip isn’t just about playtime. It can serve as a powerful training tool, encouraging good behaviors when used sparingly. For instance, a catnip-infused toy placed on a scratching post can promote its use or help your cat adapt to a new bed or cat tree.

Remember, though, catnip’s potency fades, so keep it in an airtight container and use these strategies occasionally to maintain their effectiveness.

Alternatives to Catnip for Kittens and Cats

If your kitten or cat shows zero interest in catnip, there are other things you can try. Some of these, such as silver vine, capture the attention of many of the cats that do not have a visible response to catnip.

When it comes to kittens though, they are still less likely to react to these herbs than adult cats. Regardless, they are still safe for kittens so it won’t hurt to try!

Here are a few kitten-friendly options:

  • Silver Vine (Actinidia polygama): Known for inducing a euphoric reaction in cats similar to catnip, silver vine is a safe and often more potent alternative. It contains two attractant compounds, making it appealing even to some cats that don’t respond to catnip.
  • Valerian Root (Valeriana officinalis): Although in humans valerian root is used as a calming and sleep aid, it stimulates cats in a manner akin to catnip, often promoting playful behavior and exercise. The root of the plant is typically what’s used to attract cats.
  • Cat Thyme (Teucrium marum): Despite its name, cat thyme is not related to the thyme used in cooking but is another herb that some cats find irresistible. It can be a good alternative for cats not interested in catnip.
  • Cat Grass (Various species): Cat grass is a mix of grasses like wheatgrass (Triticum aestivum) that are safe for cats to chew on. It’s beneficial for digestion and helps prevent hairballs. Growing cat grass at home can provide your kitten with a safe green snack
silver bengal cat laying on concrete zoned out after nibbling on the catnip in front of him, illustrating "when can kittens have catnip"

Wrapping Up

It’s clear that understanding how kittens interact with catnip and other plants enriches the way we care for and engage with them. Exploring these options provides not just entertainment, but also contributes to their well-being and development.

As with any aspect of pet care, observing your kitten’s reactions and preferences is important. Each kitten is unique, and what captivates one may not interest another.

Remember to always prioritize safety and consult with a vet if you have any questions about your pet’s health.

[Image credit: All images are used under license or with permission]

Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice. Always consult your veterinarian if you have specific concerns about your pet’s health.

Author

  • Dr. Wendy Wilkins DVM PhD.

    Dr. Wendy Wilkins is an experienced veterinarian and epidemiologist with over 20 years of expertise. She holds a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree and a Doctorate in Epidemiology from the University of Saskatchewan. Throughout her career, Dr. Wilkins has excelled in clinical practice, academia, research, and regulatory veterinary medicine. She is a respected voice in knowledge dissemination, delivering factual information in a readable and understandable manner through articles, books, and public engagements.