Why Cats Love Catnip

August 23, 2013

Catnip makes most cats very happy! That much we know. It can have a lot of amusing effects on our feline companions after just a little exposure to it. Catnip, which is also known as catswort or catmint, is known to scientists as Nepeta cataria. Cat owners everywhere can benefit from the work of just such scientists who have looked into how and why cats can't get enough of the stuff.

Chemical Reaction

Well, technically speaking, cats go gaga over catnip because it provides a strong sensory effect on them. The nepetalactone within the catnip is the reason for this, and it will enter the cat's body as he sniffs it. It binds to their olfactory receptors, and it's believed that the nepetalactone mimics a cat pheromone. 

Don't worry, though; it's not a drug. it's not addictive. It's safe to give it to your cat as you see fit without fear of negative health effects. This may be hard to believe when your cat seems to be hallucinating on it, but it is all harmless fun. 

Typical Behavior

While their reactions differ depending on the feline companions in your life, most adult cats will sniff the catnip or the catnip-infused toy. They'll then chew or perhaps only lick it while starting to shake their heads. They may subsequently rub it with their cheeks and chin. Next, expect rubbing other parts of the body on it, or they may simply roll over and seem to stare into space with a contented gaze. They may also paw it and play with it happily. 

It makes cats feel good because they have a strong reaction that's tied to their senses. Don't be surprised if your cat has drools or has subsequent sleepiness. All cats respond differently, so don't be alarmed if your cat only has one, none, or all of these responses. 


Timing Is Everything

Most cats have a reaction to catnip that lasts for five to fifteen minutes. They won't then react to repeated exposure to it until over an hour has passed. The exact timing differs among cats, but the reason is not agreed upon. This does mean that cats can still enjoy it multiple times per day and will often become quite possessive of catnip toys and treats. 

Not All Cats Will Love Catnip

Much like people, cats are very much products of nature and nurture. The predisposition to an adoration of catnip is an inherited trait, and not all cats have it. In fact, it's called an autosomal dominant trait, and cats whose genetic history can be linked to areas of the world where catnip was not indigenous usually won't have a response to catnip.

Also, no matter what your cat's genetic makeup, kittens who are younger than six months of age will typically not respond to catnip at all. It's a pleasure known to most adult cats, though, and you are probably safe trying out catnip of your feline companion. It will likely make her very happy!

Wild Thing

Domestic cats aren't the only members Felidae family who love catnip. It also has an effect on the big cats like lion. According to Reader's Digest, fourteen of sixteen lions that were tested with catnip responded to it in similar ways to house cats. Other big cats also responded positively to it, and they had the same reactions that domestic cats enjoy as well. Size doesn't matter when it comes to the capacity to enjoy the sensations that catnip brings.


Do not put catnip in with your cat's food because that can disturb their eating behaviors and habits. Yes, it's safe for cats to eat catnip in other situations, but it should not be mixed with their regular food or given during meal time. Because cats become temporarily acclimated to the catnip after a few minutes, it's best to buy both catnip toys and other varieties to keep your cat entertained and enjoying himself during play times.