The Cat Drugs of Catnip and Matatabi

Timmy our stray cat after a session with a catnip toy
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Timmy our stray cat after a session with a catnip toy

This is a look at the cat drugs of catnip and matatabi from a slightly scientific point of view. Catnip is well known and the Japanese matatabi hardly known at all.

I have made one or two earlier posts on catnip: Catnip Video and What Does Catnip Look Like?


catnip It is said that cats can become addicted to hallucinogenic drugs. I am not sure if this true. I am yet to see a cat addict and have never heard of one!

Catnip is a mint like plant that contains the chemical nepetalactone. The scientific name for catnip is Nepeta cataria.

Not all cats get a high from nepetalactone as susceptibility is inherited. A cat that had one parent who was sensitive to nepetalactone has a 50% chance of being sensitive too. If both parents were sensitive the chance rises to 75%. The 'catnip-response' is inherited as an autosomal dominant (Todd 1962).

A cat “trip” induced by catnip results in the cat doing the following in this order:

  1. sniffing
  2. licking and chewing with head shaking
  3. chin rubbing
  4. cheek rubbing
  5. rolling on its side and body rubbing (similar to estrous females – in heat)

In addition:

  • twitching
  • leaping
  • being spaced out after playing with it
  • digging or pawing
  • salivating
  • scratching
  • washing
  • grooming

Trips lasts no more than 15 minutes with a one hour readjustment time afterwards. As far as we know no permanent brain damage is caused. It seems that overdosing or prolonged use can be detrimental.

Apparently cat thyme and valerian have similar effects.

When catnip is taken internally it acts as a sedative. The Japanese plant Actinidia polygama (also known as the Silver Vine) contains a chemical that is used to sedate lions in zoos.

Castoreum (exudate from the castor sacs of the mature North American Beaver) and catnip proved an effective lure to the lynx because it had a high detection rate by this wild cat (Reference 1).

The first reports on the attraction of catnip to Felis catus (domestic cat) were published well over 200 years ago.

The catnip response only works on cats over 6 – 8 weeks of age and may not work until the cat is three months old (Reference 2).

Frozen catnip that has been thawed out works relatively poorly. Fresh and extracted catnip oils work well. Commercial imitation catnip works poorly (Reference 3)

In the USA a company applied for a patent to use catnip as a “palatability enhancer”. Another example of how commercial cat food really is all about money.


Actinidia polygama The name matatabi is name for the plant Actinidia. This plant is found from East Asia to China and Japan. It is a deciduous shrub growing on the edge of streams.

The chemical contained in this plant is also attractive to cats. It is also used in Chinese folk medicine for pain control, as a tonic and for rheumatism. The chemical is cyclopentanoid monoterpenes like iridomyrimecin (Reference 7).

Cats respond to this plant by:

  1. salivating
  2. licking
  3. rub their fur on it
  4. sleep

Accordingly, it is effective in gathering in feral cats. I am not sure if it used by cat rescue teams to gather in and trap feral cats. However as a lure it would seem to have been considered (or actually used) by animal control teams to capture and poison feral cats (Reference 5). The bait being a mix of matatabi and a poison.

The cat drugs of catnip and matatabi were the most effective cat lures in a scientific test (Reference 6) being more effective than:

  • food odours (fish oils)
  • social odours (urine and its components for example)

The cat drugs of catnip and matatabi - Pictures:

Catnip drawing: Wikimedia Commons: uploaded by Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) from a 1796 drawing in the public domain.

The cat drugs of catnip and matatabi -- Actinidia polygama: Wikimedia Commons: author: Shu Suehiro

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The Cat Drugs of Catnip and Matatabi to Cat Facts

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The Cat Drugs of Catnip and Matatabi

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Oct 08, 2010
first time Matatabi
by: Angelique

Today I went with my two Thai (old type siamese) cats to the vet of their vacationtrip-vaccinations.

And also bought two sticks of Matatabi ... I never ever heard form this before. And was a bit like .... ??? Well they can tell me a lot.

My cats LOVED it!!!
Also after their trip 😉 They were very lazy and well ... Mellow ... just like you would have having smoked a hasj (allowed here in the Netherlands)

So in my opinion this is sort of a cat-hasji 😉
Nederwiet for cats 🙂

I also read on the internet you should not give it to them more than 3 times a week ... or else they get used to it to much and it wouldn't work for them anymore.

Yep, they sure looked very happy 🙂

Jan 27, 2010
Hi Gail
by: Michael

Thanks for your comment. I hope you are well. Timmy our stray cat dives into a bag that contained catnip toys. He wanders in at all hours and if I am in bed I can tell he is rummaging around the bag because of the noise! It almost sounds we are being burgled.

What is that, I am thinking? Then I realise...

Michael Avatar

Jan 26, 2010
Catnip & Matatabi
by: Gail (Boston, MA USA)

As usual, Michael, you are spot on with this article. I never even knew of our Japanese counterpart in catnip. Very informative. Thank you so much.

Last summer Sadie went nuts when she sniffed the (pepper)mint plant growing on the sill and I couldn't figure out why...that is, until my doctor told me it was in the catnip family! That explains the numerous head rubs on the leaves and the general lackluster batting of the mint leaves. I thought she was just being lazy. Little did I know she was euphoric, LOL!

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