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Why Do Cats Like Catnip?

Entertaining as the effects of this fascinating herb can be, catnip does not affect all cats the same.

Melvin Pena  |  Oct 8th 2015


How many things have you heard compared to catnip? In the popular imagination, catnip — scientific name Nepeta cataria — has an almost magical power over all felines. Wave a piece of this plant in a cat’s general direction and the cat loses his mind. Like many generalizations, this contains only hints of truth. In reality, catnip, a member of the mint family, is a versatile and beautiful flowering herb with uses beyond simple cat entertainment.

While many cat owners sink outlandish amounts of cash into catnip-infused toys, you might be surprised and pleased to know that catmint is a hardy and resilient perennial plant. It’s easy to grow, comes back year after year, and spreads easily if its growth is left unchecked. Another intriguing fact? Not all cats respond to the attractive and stimulating oil contained within this common garden plant. Indeed, even a single cat’s reactions to catnip’s effects can change significantly over the course of the cat’s life. Let’s learn more!

Why do cats like catnip?

No matter how it’s packaged — in cat toys, fresh from the ground, or dried — cats like catnip because they are drawn to the nepectalone within. Nepectalone is a chemical compound first isolated and identified by humans in the early 1940s. This oil is also found naturally in Tartarian honeysuckle, which, like catnip itself, is originally native to Europe and Asia. It is a testament to these plants’ robust health that both of these cat-attracting plants can now be found growing around the world.

why do cats like catnip

What is catnip? Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

When a catnip plant is bruised or broken, the scent of the oil is released into the air. It is this scent that causes the catnip high. As we know from other naturally scented vegetation including flowers and potpourri, the power and pungency of the scent wanes and fades over time. Cat owners tend to discover by trial and error that the nepectalone present in catnip does not affect every cat. Depending on the source of the research, catnip’s effects can be observed in 50 percent to 75 percent of domestic cats.

Although a predisposition to catnip is an inherited genetic trait, there is really no way to anticipate whether any given cat will react to the plant, or with what degree of excitement. Kittens begin to show a preference between the ages of 6 weeks and 6 months, so if you’re interested in watching your fur baby flip her wig, you might need patience and persistence.

How catnip affects cats

When catnip does have purchase on cats, its effects vary but are always of limited duration. The nepectalone operates by scent. It’s no more effective if cats eat it before or after being exposed to its odor, and it’s neither dangerous nor toxic to them if ingested. Much in the same way that humans have various physiological responses to herbal intoxicants, a cat’s reaction to catnip depends on how susceptible the cat is to it and the relative freshness of the oil. A catnip high tends to be short-lived, lasting from 10 minutes to 15 minutes before the affected cat moves on to other important cat business.

why do cats like catnip

Growing catnip is relatively easy, even indoors. Photo via Public-Domain-Image.com.

Judging by comical YouTube videos, people are entertained by cats’ outward physical responses, which include mellow lolling about on the floor and clownish hyperactivity. If your cat demonstrates an interest in the herb, you might consider using it to your advantage around the home. For instance, encouraging a cat to stop scratching your bed post or dining room chairs can be facilitated by breaking a fresh catnip plant and rubbing it on more appropriate furniture, like a cat tree or scratching post.

Benefits of growing catnip

Your cats may or may not exhibit a predilection for catnip, but its time-limited potency might discourage you from buying catnip-infused cat toys. A cat’s long-term interest in a cat toy depends on the toy itself; any chemical response to the toy’s catnip content will wear off quickly. Fortunately, growing catnip is easy whether you have an outdoor garden or choose to cultivate it indoors. The only real necessity is ready access to direct sunlight.

The catnip plant also has uses beyond driving your cat bonkers for a few minutes at a time. As an outdoor ornamental herb, catnip can grow in almost any climate and is extremely resistant to drought. Once its roots take hold in a garden, you can count on it returning year after year. From spring until autumn, the square-stemmed plant will be noticeable, growing as tall as three feet and producing lovely little flowers that range from pink to purple in hue.

why do cats like catnip

Catnip has a short-lived appeal even to responsive cats. Photo by Shutterstock.

Catnip spreads easily outdoors given the chance. If that appeals to you, it’s also intriguing to note that the plant has additional benefits in the garden. Not only does the herb attract cats, but it draws other creatures as well, some conspicuously beautiful and others secretly useful. Catmint plants attract pollinators such as butterflies, but also lacewings — insects that are most active at dawn and dusk and that eat aphids, caterpillars, and other destructive garden pests. The scent of nepectalone might also keep some roaches or mosquitoes at bay.

“Can cats overdose on catnip?” and other pressing questions

Cats, like dogs, can sometimes be seen eating grass or gnawing on other plants. As is the case with anything, if they do eat catnip, too much might cause them some degree of digestive upset, be it vomiting or diarrhea. That said, it has nothing to do with the properties of the plant itself, but it’s merely a case of overindulgence or unfamiliarity. The apparently narcotic effects of the essential oil, no matter how potent its effects on your cats, are always limited and wear off quickly. Fresh or dried, the plant offers no danger to cats.

Does catnip have any effects on humans? Like other members of the mint family, catnip has played many roles over time, including use as an ingredient, topping, or garnish in the preparation of food and being brewed for herbal teas. Historically, herbalists, homeopaths, and folk wisdom allege that the catnip plant has some effectiveness as a natural sedative, pain reliever, or cough suppressant, among other, somewhat more fanciful applications.

About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a one-year-old female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Idris, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.