The Catnip Effect: Understanding What Does Catnip Do to Cats

Emma Fulton Emma Fulton 3 Min Read
photo by WhiskerWitty

Catnip, scientifically termed as Nepeta cataria, is a perennial herb belonging to the mint family. Native to Europe and Asia, its prominence in popular culture is largely attributed to its peculiar and pronounced effects on felines. While many associate it with playful feline antics, there’s much more to this plant than meets the eye. This article aims to explore the origins, active ingredients, and the varied reactions cats exhibit towards catnip. As an informed cat enthusiast, understanding the intricacies of this herb offers a deeper appreciation of its role in feline behavior.

Understanding Nepetalactone: The Active Ingredient

At the heart of catnip’s unique effect on our feline companions is a compound called nepetalactone. This organic compound is primarily found in the leaves and seeds of the Nepeta cataria plant. But what is it about nepetalactone that cats find so enthralling?

For many cats, even a trace amount of this compound can evoke a potent reaction. When inhaled, nepetalactone binds to specific receptors in a cat’s nasal tissue. This binding sends signals directly to the brain, particularly the hypothalamus – the area responsible for behavioral and emotional responses. As a result, our furry friends might exhibit a variety of reactions, from playful rolling to intense fixation. It’s a testament to the power of nature’s chemistry in influencing animal behavior.

Typical Behaviors Exhibited by Cats on Catnip

When cats are exposed to catnip, the nepetalactone triggers a variety of responses ranging from physical to psychological. Here are some of the most common behaviors exhibited by kitties under the influence of this aromatic herb:

Physical Responses

Rolling: Almost as if performing for an audience, many cats commence their catnip escapade with a joyful roll on the floor. This isn’t just for show; it’s their way of getting the scent all over their bodies.

Flipping: Following closely is the energetic flip or jump, resembling a playful kitten more than a poised adult cat. It’s sheer joy, unfiltered and unabashed.

Rubbing: Cats often rub their faces where catnip has been sprinkled. This is believed to help release more nepetalactone from the plant, intensifying its effect.


Meowing or Growling: The vocal cords get quite a workout! Some cats vocalize their ecstasy with meows, while others might emit low growls, signifying possession of their newfound treasure.

Emotional and Psychological Responses

Zoning Out: Ever seen your cat stare into space, lost in its world? Catnip can induce a trance-like state where they seem momentarily detached from reality.

Hyperactivity: Conversely, some cats shift gears into a frenzy of activity – chasing invisible prey or darting around with elevated enthusiasm.

Playfulness: Toys, tails, or even your fingers might become the object of playful batting and pouncing.

Aggression: While rare, catnip can make some cats more aggressive. This is a good time to give them space and let the effect subside.

Overt Signs of Affection: Ever had your usually aloof feline suddenly become your shadow, purring and nudging? Catnip can amplify their affectionate side.

Relaxation: Post-play, many cats mellow down, basking in a state of relaxation and contentment.

Happiness: It’s evident in their demeanor. The half-closed eyes, purrs, and gentle tail flicks are telltale signs of a cat in pure bliss.

Variability in Cat Responses

Every cat is a unique individual, and this sentiment rings especially true when it comes to their reaction to catnip. Interestingly, not all cats are swayed by its allure.

Approximately 30% to 50% of cats might appear indifferent to catnip. But why? The sensitivity to catnip is hereditary. If both parents of a kitten are responsive to catnip, there’s a higher likelihood that their offspring will also be fans. However, kittens and senior cats often show diminished or no response.

Inherited sensitivity coupled with individual disposition means that while some cats might lose themselves in catnip-induced euphoria, others might simply shrug and walk away. It’s just another quirk in the rich tapestry of feline behavior.

Mechanism of Action: How Does Catnip Affect Cats?

Inhaling vs. Ingesting Catnip

The method of exposure impacts how catnip affects cats. When inhaled, the nepetalactone molecules travel up the nose to the olfactory epithelium. This triggers an immediate neurochemical reaction in the brain, causing the characteristic crazed behaviors like bunny-kicking, flipping, and zooming around.

Ingesting catnip produces more mellow effects. When eaten, the nepetalactone gets absorbed through the digestive tract and enters the bloodstream. It eventually crosses the blood-brain barrier to exert more subdued psychoactive effects compared to smelling it.

Journey of Nepetalactone

Whether inhaled or ingested, the nepetalactone travels to parts of the cat’s brain like the amygdala and hypothalamus. Here it binds to neurotransmitter receptors, altering chemical messaging and causing disinhibited, euphoric behavior. It may mimic certain pheromones and stimulate the olfactory bulb and pleasure centers. This chemical journey explains how catnip hijacks the feline brain!

Duration and “Reset” of Catnip Effects

The catnip craze doesn’t last forever! Most cats will experience the intoxicating effects of catnip for 5-15 minutes before starting to calm down. The chemicals need to clear their system before they become reactive again.

The duration of the catnip reaction can vary substantially between individual cats. While the intoxicating effects typically last around 5-15 minutes, the time it takes for the nepetalactone to be fully metabolized and excreted is not precisely known. Experts recommend waiting at least 1-2 hours before re-exposing a cat to catnip, but the required “reset” time can fluctuate. The key point is that cats need a period of time for the catnip chemicals to leave their system before they can experience the effects again.

Practical Uses and Considerations

While catnip is often seen as a form of entertainment for our cats, its benefits extend beyond those playful moments. At the same time, responsible usage is key to ensure our pets enjoy it safely.


Helping with Separation Anxiety: For cats that tend to get anxious when left alone, catnip can act as a soothing agent, providing a temporary distraction and reducing feelings of loneliness.

Potential Pain Relief: Some studies suggest that catnip has mild analgesic properties. While it’s no replacement for proper medical care, it might offer temporary relief from minor discomforts.


Risk of Overindulgence: Moderation is essential. While catnip is safe, excessive exposure might lead to desensitization, meaning your cat might lose interest over time.

Symptoms of Eating Too Much Catnip: If your cat decides to eat a significant amount of catnip, they might experience mild digestive upset. Look out for signs like diarrhea or vomiting, and if concerned, always consult your vet.

Conclusion: Catnip and Feline Fascination

The fascinating response cats have to catnip leaves many cat lovers captivated. While research has uncovered how nepetalactone interacts with feline senses, a degree of mystery still surrounds this unique phenomenon. The allure of catnip for cats extends beyond mere scientific explanation. As we better understand the biological mechanisms behind their reaction, we can better appreciate the true experience from their perspective. In the end, the catnip phenomenon exemplifies the quirky nature of cats that makes them so endlessly endearing to us. One thing that remains certain is catnip’s irresistible hold over our feline companions!

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