Last Updated on May 2, 2024 by themubbi63

We’ve often heard of the saying ‘like catnip to a cat’. The general impression we’ve got from this is that most cats really, really like catnip. But why exactly do they like catnip? What triggers the kind of wild reaction that cats have to the plant? And what even is catnip in the first place?

What Exactly is Catnip?

Originating in Europe and Asia, catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a herb. It has long been associated with herbs, down to its scientific name. (The Latin term ‘cataria’ means ‘of a cat’.) In actual fact, 25 percent of cats aren’t affected by catnip at all. In fact, your kitty might sniff some catnip and walk away like nothing has happened.

On the other hand, your cat might smell a catnip toy and go absolutely mad with joy. It’s like drugs for a cat. They can get high off the smell of catnip. Catnip is considered a weed and it’s a part of the mint family. So what exactly is it about this plant that drives so many cats crazy?

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How Does It Work on Cats?

How does catnip work its magic exactly? Well, catnip produces an organic compound that is called nepetalactone. When a cat sniffs a catnip toy or anything that has catnip in it, the compound enters the cat’s nasal passages and the rest of the cat’s system.

Nepetalactone is released upon crushing the leaves, pods or stem of the catnip plant. So when the cat enthusiastically rubs itself against fresh or dried catnip plants, the plant releases the nepetalactone. Once this happens, the compound gets bound to the olfactory cells in the nose of the cat and sends a message to the brain which makes the cat feel good.

The nepetalactone replicates pheromonoes which make the cat feel good. It sets off the happy receptors in the brain. Researchers still aren’t completely sure what the chemical reactions are that happens in the body and brain of the cat when it smells catnip. But it certainly has an effect which is obvious in the behavior of the cat.

Again, not all cats react to catnip. There are exceptions to the rule.

Reaction of Cats to Catnip

Most cats go completely wild with even one sniff of catnip. They’ll meow, roll around on the ground, writhe around and rub themselves on the plant. As more and more of the effects manifest, the cat might try to eat the catnip. This will eventually lead to the cat becoming hyperactive, running and jumping around the room, leaping onto furniture, stretching out on the floor and drooling. 

Other cats might have a more subdued reaction and zone out completely, becoming calm and relaxed. Still others might even get aggressive if you approach them. The effects of catnip usually lasts only around ten minutes and most cats will return to normal behavior within 15 minutes.

The thing with catnip is that cats develop an immunity to the effects of the herb for a while after sniffing it. Giving it to them again within a span of two hours won’t have any effect and you won’t see the same crazy behavior again. A two-hour gap is needed for the cat to rest and become susceptible to the herb. But don’t allow your cat to overindulge on catnip.

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Does Catnip Affect All Cats?

No, it doesn’t. There’s no knowing how or why a cat will or will not react to catnip. Genes probably plays a part but so does age. It’s been established that kittens that are younger than three months aren’t really interested in catnip. The disinterest might even continue till six months.

If you’ve got multiple cats, you might notice that some aren’t affected by catnip. To them, it’s a completely ordinary plant. This has to do with heredity. There’s nothing wrong with your cat if it doesn’t respond to catnip. It just means that they don’t possess that particular gene.

If a young kitten doesn’t react to catnip, that’s normal too. They might even display an aversion to it and that’s no reason to worry. Most kittens don’t need to be stimulated with catnip anyway. They’re always ready to play unlike their lazier older counterparts. Many aged cats also don’t show any interest in the plant. 

Is Catnip Good or Bad?

There’s no research to show that catnip is particularly good or bad for cats. Experts will recommend your cat doesn’t overindulge on catnip. While cats can eat catnip and often do, too much of the plant might result in vomiting or diarrhea. If this happens, you should definitely consult a vet right away.

Catnip is usually used to stir up a cat and induce a playing session when your cat is being lazy and lethargic. It’s good exercise for the cat and can help prevent obesity by raising the activity levels of your cat. However, you should note that catnip doesn’t always rile up a cat. Sometimes, it can have the completely opposite effect and soothe or calm cats down.

You can use catnip on your cat’s scratching post to teach it to scratch that and leave your furniture alone. 

Catnip Alternatives

Since all cats don’t respond to catnip, there are some alternatives available as well: silver vine from China and Japan (eighty percent of cats reportedly respond positively to this plant), valerian which is easily found all over the world (and which half of cats seem to enjoy) and Tatarian honeysuckle from Siberia (which fifty percent of cats seem to find stimulating).

Conclusion

The allure of catnip remains an intriguing phenomenon. This minty herb triggers playful responses in many cats thanks to the nepetalactone compound. While not all felines fall under its spell, catnip offers a safe and fun way to stimulate some cats and encourage playtime.

FAQs

What does catnip actually do to cats?

Catnip contains a compound called nepetalactone that stimulates receptors in cats’ brains, leading to behaviors like rolling, rubbing, and playfulness.

Do cats enjoy being high on catnip?

Many cats do enjoy the effects of catnip, exhibiting playful and euphoric behavior when exposed to it.

Why are cats so obsessed with catnip?

Cats are drawn to catnip due to the nepetalactone compound, which triggers a response in their brains similar to a pheromone response, leading to a sense of euphoria.

Are cats supposed to eat catnip or just smell it?

Cats typically sniff, chew, or rub against catnip, releasing the nepetalactone scent. While safe in small amounts, ingesting large quantities can cause stomach upset, so it’s best for cats to smell or play with it rather than eat it.

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