While many cats love catnip, one out of three felines don’t respond to this common herb. For cats without the catnip gene, there are other herbs that may enrich their environment and give them something fun to sniff. One of these herbs is valerian. While valerian has sweet-smelling flowers that were used to make perfume in the 16th century, valerian root has an entirely different, extremely pungent smell. And it’s the root—especially when it’s made into valerian cat toys or treats—that’s highly attractive to some cats.
To understand why people buy valerian toys, and why you might want to consider purchasing some for your cat, we turned to Belltown Store Manager Mike Eppley. Mike has spent nearly 10 years working at Mud Bay, and he’s well known as a cat enthusiast who likes to study cat behavior.
MB: What is valerian? And why do cats like it?
ME: Valerian is a large plant with small pink or white flowers, but when we talk about valerian cat toys, we’re talking about valerian root. Cats like to smell valerian root because it can make them feel euphoric. Some cats don’t have the gene that makes catnip appealing to them. For cats who don’t like catnip, valerian can be a good alternative.
MB: What’s a cat’s response to valerian?
ME: I’ve actually seen a few different reactions. A lot of the time, cats will rub themselves on a valerian toy. That’s one great way to know that your specific cat likes valerian root.
Other cats seem to get some type of energy from the smell. They’ll run around the room and just be super energetic.
I’ve also seen cats that love valerian who are very calm when presented with a valerian toy. They just drool while holding the toy and may look like they’re completely blissed out. It’s actually similar to the response cats have when eating valerian root treats; the treats help them feel calmer.
MB: Unlike catnip, valerian has a very pungent and distinct odor. Can you explain what it smells like for people who’ve never bought valerian cat toys?
ME: I’ve heard a lot of people describe valerian root as smelling like body odor. It’s very strong odor, and most people find the smell unpleasant, unfortunately. But most cats absolutely love it. So, if you can work past the smell, I think it could make your cats really happy.
MB: We’ve heard stories of customers who buy valerian cat toys, take them home, unwrap them, and are unprepared for the smell. For someone’s who unfamiliar with valerian, what do you suggest?
ME: A lot of Mud Bays have sample packets of the Happy Traveler treats which contain valerian root. If anyone is curious about the valerian smell, we can give them a sample of the treats, which definitely smell like valerian, to try.
I also try to work with my staff at the Belltown store to make sure that they’re checking in with people who buy valerian cat toys. Valerian is fairly pungent, and we want people to be aware of what they’re buying before they get it home. If someone wants to open the toy package before they buy it, we’re more than happy to open it for them. We can also give it a quick sniff and verify that the toy smells right before someone brings it home.
There have been some customers who return valerian toys because they’re sure that they smell wrong, but the toys actually just smell like valerian. But if you ever have any questions about a Mud Bay product, you should definitely bring it back to the store! Please come back so we can see the product. That way, we’ll be able to check and see if it looks and smells right, or if there’s something that needs further investigation. And of course, if you find that something doesn’t work for your household, we’re happy to buy it back from you.
MB: So, if someone doesn’t want valerian in their house, are there alternative herbs that cats love?
ME: Absolutely. The most well-known herb for cats is catnip. Many cats are really happy with catnip, and that’s all that they need. Silver vine is another herb that cats love. We currently carry a blend of catnip and silver vine. Many cats react the same way to silver vine as they do to catnip, but it has a different smell and adds variety to your cat’s life. The final common alternative is honeysuckle. Many cats love honeysuckle, and we have a honeysuckle spray for those cats. We have some honeysuckle-stuffed toys, too. Between these four options, we can normally find something that each individual cat will enjoy.
Mike Eppley—known among Muddies as Cat Man—is the Belltown store manager. Drop by to see him and discuss anything you’d like to know about cats, their preferences and their sometimes mysterious behaviors.