The Catnip Conundrum. Why Is This Plant So Irresistible to Cats?

What is Catnip?

Catnip, also known by its botanical name Nepeta cataria, is a herbaceous mint native to parts of Europe and Asia. Though catnip originated in the Mediterranean region and parts of central Asia, it can now be found in many parts of the world.

Catnip is a perennial herb that grows to about 3 feet tall and has grayish-green leaves with small lavender flower spikes. It’s a fast growing, hardy plant that spreads easily and thrives in both sun and shade.

Catnip’s Effects on Cats

When cats smell or eat catnip, it triggers a response that affects their behavior. Catnip contains an oil called nepetalactone that binds to receptors in a cat’s nose and mouth. This causes the cat to act strangely for around 5-15 minutes before returning to normal. The response varies between individual cats, but common behaviors include rubbing, rolling, jumping, pouncing, vocalizing, and generally acting hyper and playful.

cat rubbing its face on catnip plant

According to this article, around 50-70% of cats are affected by catnip. Kittens younger than eight weeks old typically show no reaction. The response reaches its peak during young adulthood and remains constant into maturity. While the oil causes euphoria in cats, it does not appear to have any addictive properties. After exposure, cats will temporarily lose interest in catnip for around an hour until the effect wears off. They can then enjoy it again.

The Science Behind It

The addictive response that cats have to catnip is caused by chemical compounds found within the plant called nepetalactones. These active compounds are concentrated in the leaves and stems of catnip plants ( When cats smell or ingest catnip, the nepetalactones bind to receptors in a cat’s nose, which then stimulates a response in the brain. This causes the cat to act euphoric and exhibit strange behaviors like rolling around, pawing at the catnip, and acting hyperactive.

The neural response triggered by catnip is believed to be inherited and innate in cats. Nepetalactones are similar in structure to cat pheromones and promote a response via the olfactory system. However, the specific mechanisms and neural pathways involved are not yet fully understood. Researchers continue to study how catnip engages the amygdala, hypothalamus, and other parts of a cat’s brain to elicit the ecstatic catnip reaction.

Not All Cats Are Affected

Catnip sensitivity is an inherited trait, with around 70-80% of cats affected by catnip. For the remaining 20-30% of cats, catnip has no observable effect [1]. Genetics determine whether or not a cat will respond to catnip, so if neither parent reacts to it, their kittens likely won’t either. Interestingly, big cat species like lions and tigers also respond to catnip, suggesting the trait is evolutionarily ancient [2].

Kittens younger than six months old also tend not to be affected by catnip. Their response typically develops around puberty when they are between 6 months to 1 year old. Before puberty, kittens lack the innate instincts and receptors that trigger the catnip reaction [3].

kittens sniffing at catnip leaves

The Catnip Response

When cats experience catnip, it often induces exaggerated play behaviors like rolling, rubbing, and hyperactivity. According to a study by Villani et. al (2011) at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine[1], common responses are rolling over, chin and cheek rubbing, head shaking, pawing, licking, and head-over rolling. Many cats also experience a burst of hyperactive behavior like jumping, leaping, and frenzied running. The catnip seems to produce a temporary euphoric state.

Researchers believe this is because catnip binds to receptors in the cat’s nose and stimulates a response in the brain that affects several systems simultaneously. This produces the apparent euphoria, exaggerates typical cat behaviors like rubbing and head movements, and leads to the short-lived hyperactive state.

Why Is Catnip So Addictive?

Catnip contains an organic compound called nepetalactone that mimics a cat pheromone and binds to receptors in a cat’s nose and mouth. This causes a pleasurable response and stimulates cats in a way that makes them want more. The nepetalactone inside catnip triggers a chemical reaction and neuronal response in the brain that creates a temporary euphoric state and causes the cat to act hyper and playful. According to, it’s thought that around 30-50% of cats have a genetic predisposition to responding strongly to catnip. Those that respond show instincts like rubbing, rolling, head shaking and facial rubbing. Researchers theorize that catnip targets the receptors related to rewarding behaviors, similar to addictive drugs. The pleasurable high draws the cat back for more.

Is Catnip Harmful?

Catnip is generally considered safe for cats when used appropriately. The active ingredient that causes the “high” in cats is called nepetalactone, which binds to receptors in a cat’s nose and has a sedative effect. Nepetalactone is non-toxic and harmless, even in large doses.

Catnip does not contain any addictive properties. Cats may seek out catnip because they enjoy the temporary high it gives them, but they do not experience withdrawal symptoms or any negative health effects from catnip use. Responsible cat owners can allow their cats to enjoy catnip without worrying about long-term consequences.

cat rolling in pile of catnip

Some potential safety concerns to be aware of include the following:

  • Eating catnip can cause gastrointestinal upset in some cats. It’s best to limit catnip to sniffing/licking rather than ingesting large amounts.
  • Kittens under 6 months old typically do not respond to catnip and should avoid it until matured.
  • Using catnip spray directly on cats’ faces can cause irritation.
  • Giving a cat catnip too frequently can lead to temporary desensitization.

Overall, catnip is not considered toxic, addictive, or harmful when used responsibly. It produces a harmless “high” that most cats enjoy in moderation. Limiting intake and supervising use is recommended.


Other Uses of Catnip

While catnip is most known for its intoxicating effects on cats, the herb has several other uses for humans as well. Catnip has a long history of use in herbal medicine, including as a treatment for headaches, toothaches, coughs, sore throats, and skin irritations. The herb contains chemicals called nepetalactones that act as a natural insect repellent. Oil from catnip leaves can be applied to the skin or clothes as an alternative to synthetic bug sprays.

Catnip also has applications as a culinary herb. The leaves have a minty flavor and can be used to make tea, added to salads, used as a garnish, or blended into sauces. Some people even use catnip as an ingredient in cocktails. As a garden plant, catnip can help repel certain insects like aphids, Japanese beetles, and weevils from attacking nearby plants.[1] With its multiple uses for humans, insects, and cats, catnip is a versatile perennial herb for any garden.

Growing Catnip

Catnip is relatively easy to grow at home, making it a great option for cat owners who want to have a fresh supply for their feline friends. Catnip is a hardy perennial herb in the mint family that can be grown from seed or transplanted from starts. It prefers full sun and average to dry soil with good drainage. Catnip will grow best if planted in an area that receives 6-8 hours of sunlight per day.

When planting catnip from seed, sow seeds 1⁄4 inch deep in early spring after the last frost. Seeds will germinate in 10-20 days. Thin young catnip plants to 12-18 inches apart. Transplant catnip starts after the last spring frost, spacing them 12-18 inches apart. Water catnip plants regularly until established. After several weeks, catnip should be watered only when the soil is dry 2-3 inches below the surface.

person planting catnip seeds in garden

Here are some tips for growing catnip successfully at home:

  • Choose a spot in full sun with well-draining soil.
  • Amend soil with compost or organic fertilizer before planting.
  • Space plants 12-18 inches apart to allow air circulation.
  • Water young plants consistently until roots are established.
  • Trim off flowers to promote leaf growth.
  • Cut back leaves by 1/3 after flowering to encourage regrowth.
  • Divide mature plants every 2-3 years to reinvigorate growth.
  • Harvest leaves and stems just before flowering for maximum potency.
  • Dry catnip quickly in a warm, dark place to preserve aroma and flavor.

With proper care, catnip is relatively pest and disease free. It can be grown successfully in containers or garden beds. Always plant catnip far away from other mints, as it will readily cross-pollinate with them. By following these simple tips, you can enjoy growing fresh catnip for years to come.

Fun Facts About Catnip

Catnip produces some strange and surprising effects in cats. Here are some fascinating fun facts about this minty herb:

Only about 50-70% of cats are affected by catnip. Kittens younger than 3 months old typically show no interest in catnip.

Catnip sensitivity is inherited as an autosomal dominant gene, meaning the gene only needs to be passed down from one parent.

Some cats may become aggressive after exposure to catnip. The herb seems to stimulate typically plays behaviors, including hunting instincts.

Catnip is closely related to oregano, basil, mint, and sage. But catnip contains a chemical called nepetalactone that causes the euphoric reaction in cats.

Cats can smell 1 part nepetalactone per billion parts of air. Their sense of smell for catnip is 14 times better than the human nose.

The catnip response usually lasts between 5 and 15 minutes, after which cats lose interest for about an hour before responding again.

Not only do cats enjoy catnip, but many other felines like lions, leopards, lynxes, and tigers are also attracted to it.

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