We don’t know exactly when it happened, but hundreds of years ago some European farmer found his cats rolling around in a patch of minty weeds, acting silly. He named that minty weed catnip.

Scientists have since named it Nepeta cataria, and have even figured out what it is about this member of the mint family that brings out the kitten in even the most dignified of cats. The answer is nepetalacone, a chemical that is concentrated in special glands on the surface of the catnip leaves. When the delicate membranes around the glands are broken, a scent is released that triggers a pleasure center in the cat’s brain. Cats then roll around, rub, jump, salivate, and play for 10 or 15 minutes, then calm down and often end up napping.

At least, some of them do: Kittens under six months old tend to be totally unimpressed, and about a third of all adult cats are also indifferent to catnip. That’s because there is a catnip reaction gene, and not all cats have it.

Catnip is a totally safe and non-addictive treat. Cats with access to catnip toys all the time, however, do get bored with it. The best way to keep kitty’s catnip toys exciting is to put them away when she’s done playing with them. Bring them out just once or twice a week, and they will always be a special treat.

Buying a Catnip Toy

  • Good quality, fresh catnip should be dark green and have a minty smell. If you can’t smell it, forget it.

  • Read the label to be sure that the toy you select does not use fillers in place of or mixed in with the catnip.

  • Select a toy that you think your cat will enjoy. Catnip toys come in all shapes and sizes.

  • Check the seams of the toy to be sure it can hold up to the rigors of your cat.

  • Remember that small mice filled with catnip are especially popular among cats.

  • Be sure that all ingredients inside the toy are safe for your cat to ingest, in case he rips a hole in the fabric. (Catnip is totally safe to eat-even for you!)

  • Decide what type of fabric your cat likes. Your cat might prefer plush, terrycloth or satin.

  • Remember that most catnip toys cost $5 or less.

How to Make a Catnip Toy

  • To begin, decide on the toy shape: mouse, heart, ball or whatever shape catches your fancy. Make a pattern by drawing the shape on a paper grocery bag, leaving a 3/8-inch seam allowance all around the design. Cut the pattern out.

  • Fold in half a piece of the scrap material you plan to use to make the toy, keeping the nice sides together. Pin the pattern onto the scrap material, and then cut out the pattern. Double-check that the nice sides of the pattern are together, then stitch the sides together, leaving a 3/8-inch seam around the shape.

  • Leave about an inch opening in the seam, then turn the toy right-side-out and fill with dried catnip. Hand stitch the remaining one-inch opening closed.

  • If you are making a mouse, add a tail by placing a piece of twine or cord inside as you sew the seam, with the long end inside of the material. Once you turn the material right-side-out, the long tail will be outside.

  • Are you the sort of person who never picks up a needle and thread? No problem! Take an old, clean sock or a pair of nylons. Stuff some catnip in the toe, tie a knot in the sock or stocking, and then cut off the extra. When the catnip loses its potency, you can untie the knot and add fresh catnip.