Nepeta cataria, a herbaceous plant in the mint family, is more often known as catnip, because approximately two-thirds of domestic cats (and even many wild feline species, like jaguars and lions!) are attracted to it with a surprising intensity of interest. Cats who encounter catnip stems or leaves will roll around in it, paw at it, drool over it, meow, leap, and purr.
“A lot of the behaviors you see in cats, such as purring, are associated with positive moods in cats suggesting catnip sends them into a state of bliss,” certified cat behavior cat consultant Joey Lusvardi told The Spruce Pets.
When they go gaga for catnip, your cat is responding to an active ingredient called nepetalactone, a compound generated by the plant as an insect repellent. But you don't need to know the science to enjoy watching your cat react to catnip. While you can buy catnip alone (we picked out some favorites), it's also a common component of cat toys.
Our favorites are Yeowww My Cats Balls, which are made from durable canvas, stuffed with potent catnip, and just the right size for pawing, nudging, and chasing.
Yeowww My Cats Balls
Includes organic catnip
Comes in a multi-pack
Potent and long lasting
No way to refill catnip
Balls skid more than roll
A good catnip toy needs to be durable, fun to play with and coated in catnip smell. It helps when it has a ridiculous name to back it all up. Yeowww My Cat Balls have all of these attributes and more, offering a great way to get some catnip to your feline friend.
Coming in packs of three, these multicolored balls come stuffed with Yeowww’s own brand of organically grown catnip. The balls, made in the US, are covered in canvas which allows for a durable ball that can handle playtime.
It’s an incredibly simple toy that your cat can rub all over and enjoy the effects of catnip. The balls are a bit small, ranging in at around two inches, so they will likely get lost under something at some point. But all your cat has to do is follow their nose to get the ball back in the court.
Price at time of publish: $13 for 3
Dimensions: 2-inch diameter | Materials: Canvas, catnip | Colors: Green, blue, multi-color
Jackson Galaxy Ultimate Bunny Kicker
Unique spring back response
Durable canvas construction
Long length compared to most kickers
Catnip is not refillable
When we tested 21 different kicker toys for cats, our favorite was the Jackson galaxy Ultimate Bunny Kicker. It’s crammed with organic catnip (sadly, there’s no way to refill), but has even more to offer. What’s most unique about the Ultimate Bunny is that this kicker kicks back. It’s got a springy rod inside, which causes it to bounce when your cat kicks it. This makes it an ideal pick for especially active cats, who want to combine their catnip time with some more aggressive pursuits.
The Ultimate Bunny Kicker is also our favorite because it’s longer than most kickers, which best enables your cat to grasp one end and kick the other.
Price at time of publish: $13
Dimensions: 13 x 2 x 2 inches | Materials: Canvas, organic catnip
Potaroma Electric Flopping Fish
Zippered pouch lets you insert new catnip
Surprisingly realistic fish flopping
Multiple fish species
Comes with USB charging cable but no wall outlet
The Potaroma Electric Flopping Fish has a little motor inside that creates a surprisingly realistic flopping motion. When we tested it, we found that cats could absolutely not resist the urge to stop the flop. The Flopping Fish also comes with a blend of silvervine and catnip in a sachet, which can be inserted into the zippered compartment alongside the motor, making the flopping fish even more attractive.
The interactive fish toy comes with a short USB charging cable, and charging the fish motor is straightforward—once the red light goes out, you’re fully charged. It’ll keep flopping for as long as 40 minutes on a charge.
Unfortunately, the Potaroma flopping fish is noisy, though our tester cats’ curiosity quickly overcame their fear of the noise. And while we love that the Potaroma’s catnip can be refilled, you’ll likely want a bag or sachet of some sort, since the catnip goes in the same zippered compartment as the floppy motor.
There’s also a new version of the Potaroma Flopping Fish Toy that includes a remote for turning on or off the fish’s flopping. We’re excited to try it out for ourselves, and very curious about the multiple buyers describing interference from their TV remote controls.
Price at time of publish: $19
Dimensions: 11.25 x 4.33 x 1.36 inches Varieties: Carp, clownfish, rainbow trout, red carp
SmartyKat Fish Flop Crinkle Catnip Cat Toys
Available in multiple packs
Perfect size for batting or carrying around
Multiple colors available
Catnip is not refillable
Small enough to get lost under furniture easily
Sure, a flopping fish is nice, but what about a whole school of fish? The SmartyKat Fish Flop Crinkle toys combine catnip with the interactive sound cats can’t resist, and they come in packs of three or nine fish. Each fish is a little over four inches long, which is small enough that your cat can carry or bat it around.
Price at time of publish: $9 for 3 fish
Dimensions: 4.25 x 1.25 x 0.5 inches | Colors: Green, blue, purple | Materials: Catnip, recycled polyfill
Fat Cat Tadpole Wand
Long line with stretchy knit ribbon
Big lure with lots of cat appeal
Catnip is not refillable
Wand is short
Our favorite wand toys let you swap out different lures, and while the Fat Cat Tadpole Wand can’t do that, it does come loaded with one of our favorite lures and a potent quantity of catnip. The Fat Cat Tadpole’s lure is six inches long, with ribbon streamers and a plush body your cat will want to sink their claws into. It’s also stuffed with organic catnip. And while the ten-inch wand is nothing special, we love the 25-inch long tether, which is a stretchy, ribbon knit that’s attractive to cats all on its own.
Price at time of publish: $5
Wand Length: 10 inches | Line Length: 25 inches | Lure: Tadpole with catnip
SmartyKat Catnip Kiss Compressed Catnip Ball
Available in packs of 5
Can get messy
Not all cats respond as strongly to baked, compressed catnip
These SmartyKat balls are nearly entirely made from compressed catnip. Blended with a little rice flour and water for cohesion, each ball is baked into a round shape, with a nearly two-inch diameter. The only downside is that if your cat gets too excited, these balls can get soggy and, eventually, a little crumbly. It’s best to only deploy these in rooms with easy-to-clean surfaces and minimal hard-to-reach spots, since these balls are easy to lose under furniture. Also, while many cats go absolutely nuts for these, there’s something about the compressed and baked catnip that a minority of cats reject, so your results may vary.
These catnip balls are also available in multi-packs.
Price at time of publish: $5
Diameter: 1.87 inches | Sizes: Set of 1, set of 5
Best Catnip Refill
From the Field Ultimate Blend Catnip And Silver Vine
Catnip and silver vine blend appeals to wider range of cats
Grown organically in the United States
Multiple sizes available
Not available in sachets
While there are a wide range of loose catnips useful for refillable toys, our favorite is the From the Field Ultimate Blend Mix, which is combined with silver vine, a plant in the kiwi family that produces a similar euphoric effect to catnip. From the Field catnip is grown in the United States, plus it’s non-GMO and organic. It’s also available in versatile packages, ranging from half-ounce bags to 3.5 ounce tubs.
Price at time of publish: $8 for 2 ounces
Ingredients: Organic catnip, silver vine | Sizes: .5, 1, 2, 3.5 ounces
How Catnip Works
Only about two-thirds of cats react to the active cat attractant component in catnip, called nepetalactone. Nepetalactone belongs to a class of more than 30,000 natural compounds known as terpenes, which are produced by plants to serve a variety of functions, including ecological interactions like fighting off plant diseases, creating bitter tastes to ward off animals, and attracting pollinators. Essential oils are made up primarily of terpenes. Nepetalactone is a specialized terpene that keeps certain species of insects away from the plant.
When your cat smells nepetalactone their brain responds similarly to the human brain on opioids. However, since the response is limited to endogenous endorphins, it doesn't create dependence or withdrawals.
But why does nepetalactone trigger such a specific feline secretion response? In other words, why would a plant insect repellent drive cats so wild?
While scientists have yet to the actual biological mechanism of a cat's nepetalactone response, we do have a promising evolutionary theory, characterized in research published by the American Association for the Advance of Science. When cats rub against catnip, it spreads nepetalactone on a cat's face or body, repelling mosquitos. Thus, pleasurable reactions to catnip conferred an evolutionary advantage.
Catnip vs. Silver Vine
Actinidia polygama, more commonly known as silver vine, is a popular alternative to catnip, which is sometimes marketed as even stronger or better. Native to China, Korea, and Japan, silver vine is a species of kiwi. While catnip is loaded with nepetalactone, silver vine features a very similar terpene called nepetalactol. Both are confirmed cat attractants.
In comparative studies, silver vine both attracted a larger percentage of cats tested and produced more intense responses. About 80 percent of cats responded to silver vine, including three-quarters of the cats that were immune to the charms of catnip!
If your cats have never cared for catnip, try a cat toy that uses silver vine, or a combination of the two.
What is catnip?
“Catnip is a plant in the mint family, Nepeta cataria,” Lusvardi said. “It’s a green, leafy plant with triangle-shaped leaves that have jagged edges on them.”
Native to Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia, catnip is now grown all over the world, including the United States.
Catnip is a herbaceous perennial—which means it grows back every year—that typically grows to between two and three feet high and wide. It can flower anytime from spring to autumn, and produces little pink or white buds.
Why do cats like catnip?
“Catnip contains a compound called nepetalactone,” Lusvardi said. “This substance and related substances are found in many plants and act as an insect repellent for the plant. It’s thought that cats respond to catnip because the behaviors they exhibit in response to catnip will cause nepetalactone to coat their fur, acting as a natural insect repellent.”
Are catnip toys safe for kittens?
“Catnip is generally thought to be safe for kittens, though ingesting too much of it can cause them to not feel great,” Lusvardi said.
Why Trust The Spruce Pets
This article was written by Steven Asarch, a freelance writer for The Spruce Pets. He has firsthand experience working with different feline products and taking care of two rambunctious felines.
To gain a better understanding of what cats are looking for, we spoke with certified cat behavior consultant Joey Lusvardi. We looked for catnip toys that were more than just gimmicks and could handle playtime with your kitty. We prioritized durability, price, and use of catnip.