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What's the Obsession with Catnip?

By Dr. Laci Schaible


Catnip Basics

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb belonging to the mint family Labiatae. It is a weed plant that grows in the upper middle United States and lower Canada. It can also be grown in your garden.

When cats smell catnip, they exhibit a range of behaviors that have been broken down into four components:

  1. Sniffing
  2. Licking and chewing the plant with head shaking
  3. Chin and cheek rubbing
  4. Head-over roll and body rubbing

Whatever the cause, the "catnip response" tends to last from 5 to 15 minutes. After the session is over, most cats won’t respond to catnip again for at least another hour.

What causes the reaction?

Scientists are not quite sure what causes the “catnip reaction.” Catnip’s primary active ingredient that induces the aforementioned behavior, nepetalactone, is an essential oil. It is chemically similar to hallucinogens. The response has been shown to be mediated by the olfactory system but the specific mechanism that triggers these behaviors has not been described. Some speculate that it triggers a sexual response, while others believe the behavior more closely matches a cat’s predatory reactions.

Why doesn’t my cat respond to catnip?

Kittens will not show the “catnip reaction” until they are at least 7 to 8 weeks old. The behavior may not fully develop until the kitten is 3 months old. In fact, catnip produces a response of avoidance in young kittens. A catnip response usually does not occur in older cats or cats that are fearful or stressed.

Age and stress-level aside, not all cats react to catnip. The behavior has been shown to be inherited as an autosomal dominant gene (cats need only one copy of the involved gene to see the effect).

Is it safe?

The herb is harmless when ingested, and catnip has become a common ingredient in cat toys. It’s often incorporated into scratching posts and is even made into a spray. Test drive different toys on your cats to see which they prefer — some cats return repeatedly  "duffel bags” while ignoring other catnip-scented toys. Nothing beats the real thing: a pinch of catnip sprinkled on the floor or carpet can mean a session of rolling, clawing and general craziness.

Contrary to popular belief, cats do not have catnip addictions. Be aware though that too much exposure to catnip can cause cats to lose interest in it. For maximum effect, dole it out sparingly and don’t surround your cat with catnip toys.

Catnip is an interesting plant and a great treat for our felines. It is non-harmful to your cat and seems to produce a pleasurable response. It is fun for the cat and fun for the cat's owner to watch. It can even be a great tool to help your otherwise sedentary cat get some exercise and maintain a healthy weight.


Todd, N. Inheritance of the catnip response in domestic cats. Journal of Heredity, 53, 54-56.

Hart, B., et al. Analysis of the catnip reaction: mediation by olfactory system, not vomeronasal organ. Behavioral and Neural Biology, 44, 38-46.

Hatch, R. C. Effect of drugs on catnip-induced pleasure behavior in cats. American Journal of Veterinary Research, 33, 143-155.

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