Why are cats so crazy for catnip?
Cats are dignified creatures. Even when they find themselves in the most undignified of circumstances (ever witness a cat leap for the top of the refrigerator and miss?) they manage to quickly recover their composure. Their dignity is part of their charm.
But give a cat catnip and all bets are off. Your noble feline becomes a dopey, drooling, graceless, goofball.
What is catnip?
Catnip is a plant, known as Nepeta cataria to scientists. It’s also known more colloquially as catmint, catswort, and field balm. Catnip is a member of the mint family and is related to other herbal plants like basil and oregano. The plant is originally from Europe and Asia, but settlers brought it with them to the United States for its medicinal uses.
In times past, people drank catnip tea to take the edge off. There is one account of a hangman who self-medicated with catnip tea to help him reconcile his personal ethics with his profession. Native Americans were once known for using catnip to soothe colicky babies.
Today, catnip grows wild along many American highways and byways. You’ll recognize catnip by its grayish-green leaves that are heart-shaped and covered in little hairs.
Note that while you can buy catmint plants from a nursery today, those plants are mostly hybrids sold for their value as ornamental garden plants. Most contain very little of the active compound that attracts cats (more on this below) so you don’t have to worry about your yard becoming a magnet for all the wandering neighborhood felines.
How does catnip work on cats?
The catnip plant produces a volatile oil (which means that it evaporates when exposed to air) in microscopic bulbs in its leaves, stems, and pods. When a cat rubs up against the plant or chews it, the tiny bulbs are crushed, releasing the oil.
The oil contains a chemical called nepetalactone, which is the substance believed to cause cats to react to catnip. Nepetalactone enters a cat’s nasal passages and binds to receptors there that send messages to the olfactory bulb in a cat’s brain.
Scientists don’t really know why cats respond exactly as they do to catnip, but they believe that a cat’s brain might interpret nepetalactone as a kind of pheromone. The rolling around and rubbing that is part of a cat’s behavior on catnip might be a kind of sexual response. Then again, these same scientists observed catnip-induced behavior that seemed be related to play, predation, and eating. In other words, they don’t really know why cats behave the way they do around catnip.
Why doesn’t my cat like catnip?
Not every cat reacts to catnip. It turns out that reactivity to catnip is an inherited trait. It’s actually a dominant trait, meaning that if one or both parents are responsive to catnip, all of their kittens should be, too. The Humane Society estimates that only 50% of cats will react to catnip. Some estimates are a little higher, up to 80%, but the point is that not all cats respond to catnip.
You won’t know if your kitten inherited the catnip trait until she is at least three months old, but up to six months old, as very young cats don’t respond to catnip. Likewise, the effect seems to wear off as a cat ages with many senior cats having little to no response to the plant.
If your cat isn’t turned on by catnip, you can try one of several other plants that have molecules similar to nepetalactone. Scientists only recently learned that catnip isn’t the only plant that has the “catnip effect” on cats.
Researchers studied three other plants: silver vine, Tatarian honeysuckle and valerian root on 100 cats (and even a few tigers and bobcats). Some of the cats who didn’t respond to catnip reacted to one of the other plants, and there were varying degrees of reactivity in all the cats – some reacting to one, two, three, or all four of the plants, and some reacting to none at all.
In case you were curious, the tigers didn’t seem to enjoy any of it, while the bobcats had a little party with the silver vine.
Is catnip safe? Is my cat getting high on catnip?
Some cats get very excited and become very vocal when they’re playing with catnip. Some get agitated. Some zoom around the room while others growl and swat. Still others get quite mellow and calm when exposed to catnip and vocalize even less than normal.
Whatever way your cat reacts, the effect seems to last for 10 minutes at the most, and it may be some time – at least 30 minutes, but up to 2 hours – until the cat seems to be able to respond again.
To the casual observer, a cat responding to catnip might remind the viewer of a human experiencing a euphoric high while using drugs. But your cat is not hallucinating and is in no danger of becoming addicted to catnip.
“Catnip doesn’t have any known long-term effects on a cat’s brain or any other part of her body, and it isn’t addictive,” Dr. Nancy Dunkle, founder of Exclusively Cats Veterinary Hospital in New Jersey told Petmd.com.
For humans to experience a high from recreational drugs they must ingest and metabolize them. Cats who react to catnip are not ingesting or metabolizing – they are responding to scent. Put another way, a cat reacting to catnip is actually reacting to an essential oil from the catnip plant (“essential oil” is another name for “volatile oil”). Scent can make humans feel a certain way, too, but our sense of smell is far inferior to our cats’ so perhaps we don’t respond quite so strongly.
Even though cats won’t respond to ingested catnip the way they do to the smell of catnip, they sometimes eat it anyway. It is considered non-toxic, although cats who eat too much may end up vomiting or having diarrhea.
How to use and store catnip
Catnip can lose its potency over time as the essential oils in the plant dissipate very quickly. Keep your dried catnip in an airtight container in the freezer to help maintain freshness.
If your cat finds catnip sedating, use it to your and your cat’s advantage during stressful times, such as on a long trip in the car.
If your cat is the kind of cat who gets excited when exposed to catnip, use it to encourage certain behaviors. If, for example, you’re having trouble with a cat who scratches furniture, sprinkle some catnip on the scratching post you’d rather he used.
If you have a wary feline, sprinkle catnip freely to encourage your cat to explore new toys, or a new bed, for example.
 “How Does Catnip Work Its Magic on Cats?” Scientific American, Scientific American, 29 May 2007, www.scientificamerican.com/article/experts-how-does-catnip-work-on-cats/.
 Hart, Benjamin L., and Mitzi G. Leedy. “Analysis of the Catnip Reaction: Mediation by Olfactory System, Not Vomeronasal Organ.” Behavioral and Neural Biology, Academic Press, 31 Oct. 2004, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0163104785911513.
 R. Malik, A. Fawcett, et al. “Responsiveness of Cats ( Felidae ) to Silver Vine ( Actinidia Polygama ), Tatarian Honeysuckle ( Lonicera Tatarica ), Valerian ( Valeriana Officinalis ) and Catnip ( Nepeta Cataria ).” BMC Veterinary Research, BioMed Central, 1 Jan. 1970, bmcvetres.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12917-017-0987-6.
 Weisberger, Mindy. “Does Catnip Really Make Cats 'High'?” LiveScience, Purch, 3 Nov. 2019, www.livescience.com/does-catnip-get-cats-high.html.
 “Chemistry Behind Catnip.” Pet Poison Helpline, 6 Mar. 2020, www.petpoisonhelpline.com/blog/the-chemistry-of-catnip/.