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Do Feral Cats Like Catnip? Vet Approved Facts & FAQs

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	Dr. Paola Cuevas Photo

Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Paola Cuevas

MVZ (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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If you’ve ever watched a cat go crazy over catnip, you may be surprised to learn that some cats are completely indifferent to it. However, feral cats, house cats, and even large wild cats such as lions, leopards, jaguars, and cheetahs can be affected by catnip!1

The factor determining whether a cat is sensitive to catnip is hereditary. Keep reading to learn more!

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What Is Catnip?

Catnip is an herb from the mint family. It contains nepetalactone, a chemical that approximately 50-70% of felines are sensitive to.2 For catnip-affected cats, nepetalactone has a stimulating effect. Some cats that sniff catnip tend to become more playful, while others may become more aggressive. Generally, cats that are sensitive to catnip will display the following behavior:

  • Rolling over the floor and rubbing their body against the catnip or catnip-containing object
  • Repeated, intense sniffing of the catnip
  • Rubbing their chin and cheeks all over the catnip or catnip-infused object
  • Licking or chewing dried catnip
Catnip plant in a pot
Image Credit: Ilia Baksheev, Shutterstock

Will Catnip Calm Aggressive Cats?

While catnip may have a calm and soothing effect on some cats, on others it will act as a stimulant, prompting them to become territorial and aggressive.

The best way to calm an aggressive cat is to figure out the root cause of its aggression. In the case of a house cat, aggression could be a sign that they are in pain—be sure to take your cat to a veterinarian to rule out any underlying health conditions.

Feral cats are unlikely to become aggressive toward people unless they feel threatened or trapped. Under normal circumstances, feral cats will not interact with people, because they tend to feel frightened of humans. If a community cat is coming up to you, it may be a stray—a lost or abandoned domestic cat.

Can A Feral Cat Become Friendly?

There is some debate over whether an adult feral cat can be tamed enough to become a pet. Organizations such as Alley Cats Allies state that it is unlikely for adult feral cats to ever adapt to happily living indoors. With enough time and patience, however, a feral cat may display friendly behavior toward a person whom it comes to think of as a carer—someone who continuously provides them with food, water, and shelter. That said, they may never get used to you getting close enough to make physical contact.

Keep in mind that it is never a good idea to approach or try to touch, hold, or grab a feral cat. These cats are frightened of humans and will likely lash out in self-defense by scratching, hissing, and biting.

Instead, leave food and water for the feral cat, and give them lots of space. Avoid staring into their eyes as this may be seen as an act of aggression. Remain casual and calm and don’t make sudden movements or loud noises.

As the cat returns for food you may be able to close the distance little by little over time, but take care not to go too far too quickly. Let the cat make the first move, if you can. Depending on the cat’s personality, they may—over many weeks and months—show trust by coming up to you and meowing for food or attention.

a feral cat lying under a car
Image Credit: dimitrisvetsikas1969, Pixabay

What Is the Best Thing to Do for a Feral Cat?

If you spot a cat you think might be feral, you should try to first determine if it really is feral, or if it’s a stray. Stray cats are more likely to seek human attention and beg for food, and if they do, they may be someone’s lost pet cat. Be sure to ask your neighbors and check with your community to see if anyone has reported a missing pet.

If you’ve found a stray cat but haven’t found its owner, call your nearest shelter and ask for help. In most cases, a stray cat can be rehabilitated, treated, and rehomed with a new loving owner.

Feral cats are unlikely to get close to humans. They’ll appear less disheveled than a stray cat, and they’ll often huddle close to the ground and wrap their tail around themselves for protection. Look at the cat’s ears to see if one ear has been tipped—a universal sign meaning the cat has already been through a trap, neuter, return (TNR) program.

If its ears remain intact, get in touch with an organization that offers support and guidance on TNR. If you opt to help a feral cat, they’ll advise you on how you can trap the cat and take it to get it neutered and vaccinated, before releasing it back into the community. Bear in mind that if you do help a cat with TNR, you’ll be able to take it upon yourself to care for the cat by providing it with an outdoor shelter and fresh food and water for the rest of its life.

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All felines, including feral cats and large wild cats, can be affected by catnip. However, only 50-70% of cats have a hereditary inclination toward catnip—the rest are indifferent. If you’re thinking of giving some catnip to a feral cat, try leaving a small amount for them, and watch them from a distance to see if they like it. If the catnip appears to have a positive effect on the cat, you can leave it a catnip-infused toy the next time you leave them food!

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Featured Image Credit: Kassel95, Pixabay