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How Cats React to Catnip

By Colleen Williams
March 8, 2019 • 3 min. read
cats and catnip


Catnip, also known as catmint or catswort, is a perennial herb, commonly found all around the world. It is aptly named due to its known psychoactive effects on cats.

Scientifically referred to as Nepeta cataria, catnip usually grows up to 100 cm but can reach up to 3 ft in height. The plant retains a green to brown foliage appearance, quite similar to other plants in the mint family. Its square stem and triangular to elliptical-shaped, coarse-toothed leaves, are coated with tiny bulbs of nepetalactone.

Nepetalactone is the organic oil that has been found to be the cause to strange cat behavior. It is a compound that enters into the cat’s nasal passages and binds to protein receptors, thus stimulating sensory neurons that fire up the olfactory bulb, which, in turn sends these signals into the amygdala and hypothalamus.

The effects of nepetalactone on the hypothalamus, a main control center in the brain for emotions, stimulates a response in your cat that is similar to a cat in heat. The amygdala also contributes to the effect because it projects these signals onto parts of the brain responsible for behavioral responses. However, these responses are not prolonged and usually subside within a few minutes after exposure to the plant.

What makes it so potent?

While some may believe catnip is capable of affecting cats and cats alone, it is important to remember that its effects are rooted in an organic compound that can also bind to receptors in humans, dogs and other animals as well.

Though it is not yet clear why it has such a strong effect on cats, catnip has been found to be a mild sedative for dogs, a repellent for mosquitoes and other insects, and a light alternative to marijuana for people back in the 60’s.

As the human brain functions differently from a cat’s, it does not elicit as strong a response. This is why there has been no debates on whether the plant should be illegal.

How does it affect cats?

One thing to note here is that not all cats get “high” when exposed to catnip. Studies have shown that around 70-80% of the feline population, domestic cats and wildcats alike, are susceptible to catnip stimulation. The large majority that do react when exposed to catnip, all present similar changes in behavior. A few reactions include:

  • Sniffing

The initial response that cats get when they come in contact with the plant, is getting the urge to smell it. While cats usually have a tendency to start sniffing anything put within their surroundings, catnip has been found to work as a cat attractant. Its scent releases odorants that function similarly to pheromones, urging cats to sniff it a bit more than they would any other plant or object.

  • Chewing and Licking

When cats digest the plant, it has been found that it then acts as a sedative. While smelling it can cause cats to be hyperactive, chewing or licking catnip causes a more calming effect on cats. This is also one of the reasons that some humans add a bit of catnip to warm water, creating a calming tea.

  • Rubbing

A most noteworthy reaction in cats is that they start rubbing up against the plant. This behavior continues as cats also tend to start rubbing their heads on your cheeks and chin, or just start rubbing their body on you or your furniture. Remember how the herb stimulates a part of your cat’s brain responsible for controlling emotions? This rubbing is just a way for your cat to be a bit more affectionate than usual.

  • Rolling and Stretching

Similar to rubbing, your cat begins to roll and stretch around. This is because the plant puts them into a state of euphoria. Stretching and rolling around helps cats stretch out their muscles. Female cats in heat have been observed to roll around as a part of a mating ritual. This can be tied to how catnip acts as a sexual stimulant for your cat.

  • Leaping

Excited neurons in your cat’s brain causes it to become hyperactive. Pent-up energy is released as your cat begins to move around, leaping from one piece of furniture to another. Aside from just leaping, cats may even start running around the house.

This isn’t something to worry about, however, since the effects of catnip typically only last around 10-15 minutes. Your cat will eventually tire out and leave the furniture alone. Catnip does not have any long term negative effects on cats, however if you choose to grow it yourself, be careful about which pesticides you use and if it’s planted in a garden, do not plant toxic plants nearby.

Cats cannot overdose on catnip, but obviously it can encourage some playfulness which helps kitties get in some exercise time.  Simply cat-proof his catnip play area and you should be able to avoid any injuries.

Content provided by Cats.How. At Cats.How we believe in cats and their extraordinary abilities. We’ve dedicated Cats.How to all the present and future cat parents and cat lovers out there and we strive to provide you with curated quality and useful content every week. Please visit us at Cats.How.

colleen williams
By Colleen Williams

Over the past decade, Colleen has written about health, wellness, beauty, and even pets for The New York Times, The Cut, Refinery29, xoVain, Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, and Seattle Met Magazine, as well as many beauty brands. She has a BFA in Art History from the University of New Mexico and an AAS in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design in New York.

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