What Does Catnip Do to Cats and Why Do They Like It so Much?

Cats love the finer things in life, whether it’s relaxing in a sunny corner or enjoying cuddles with their owners.

As many as two-thirds of the animals also seem surprisingly attracted to a little green plant called catnip, which can see them enter a bliss-like trance after a few sniffs or if they rub themselves against it.

Teresa Keiger, creative director of The Cat Fanciers’ Association, told Newsweek: « Not every cat responds to catnip in the same way, and some cats (and most kittens) don’t respond at all. »

But Nepeta cataria, which goes by other names including catmint, catwort and field balm, has long been recognized around the world for the dramatic, sometimes intensively intoxicating effects that it has on the animals.

Owners generally won’t be able to say for certain how susceptible their cat will be to the potent greenery until kitties are aged between about three and six months.

The key to the attractiveness of Catnip, which is a close relative to aromatic herbs found in kitchens, is now understood to lie in a chemical contained in the plant’s oil, called nepetalactone.

This powerful ingredient is stored in its leaves, stems and seeds, and relatively little of the oil is required to be smelled before the majority of cats start randomly rolling about, playfully pawing and melting into feline ecstasy.

A 2021 Science article cited a study suggesting: « The key intoxicating chemicals in the plants activate cats’ opioid systems much like heroin and morphine do in people. »

A bottom view of a cute blue tabby Maine coon kitten licking glass. As many as two-thirds of the animals also seem surprisingly attracted to catnip
Nils Jacobi/Getty Images

Nepetalactone not only drives some cats crazy, its powers also include an ability to repel mosquitoes, flies, cockroaches and termites.

Researchers found that nepetalactone by itself is 10 times more effective than DEET, a key ingredient in most insect repellents.

The same scientific study also sought to explore exactly why cats in the wild are attracted to catnip and eventually hypothesized that the animals are « essentially applying an insect repellent. »

However, the obvious sheer enjoyment they experience could still be the main motivation.

A Burmese cat’s face before attacking a mouse. Catnip’s genetics are responsible for why cats go so wild for this close relative to aromatic herbs
scaliger/Getty Images

Research also illustrates that big cats including leopards, cougars and lynxes are susceptible to catnip’s charms and although lions and tigers can react strongly as well, they do so less consistently.

The intense effects are usually short-lived, lasting for approximately 10 minutes for most cats.

And regardless of the kitty’s reaction, once the high ends, approximately two hours will have to pass before your pet will again be susceptible to catnip.

The plant can be a useful training aid because of its powers, and it can help to make living spaces more attractive to the animals.

Catnip also has a long history in traditional medicine for a variety of problems, ranging from stomach cramps, indigestion, fevers and nervous conditions. However, its medicinal use has fallen out of favor with the development of modern drugs.

A happy lynx point or Siamese tabby cat rolls over on the floor and plays with a crouched catnip banana toy. Catnip’s attraction is now understood to lie in its volatile oil, specifically a single chemical in that oil called nepetalactone.
Svetlana Popova/Getty Images
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