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Why Does Catnip Make Cats Go Crazy? What Science Tells Us

Gray Cat Enjoying Fresh Catnip_Anna Hoychuk_shutterstock
Image Credit: Anna Hoychuk, Shutterstock
Last Updated on November 28, 2023 by Catster Editorial Team

The effects of catnip have provided content for an endless train of entertaining YouTube videos, and even the word itself grabs the attention of any cat owner who has a cat that loves catnip.

Several cats exposed to catnip may experience a sudden surge of crazy energy, followed by a euphoria that makes them want to go back for more. The cat-crazy ingredient is an essential oil found in catnip known as nepetalactone. It essentially makes your cat “high.” All cat parents are familiar with the herb that makes their feline friends go crazy, and in this article, we explore the topic a little deeper to help you understand why your cat may love catnip.

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What Is Catnip?

Nepeta cataria, better known as catnip, is a common herb that is a part of the mint family. This perennial herb has other uses besides bringing joy to cats, such as in teas and as a main ingredient in some bug sprays. The flowers have also been used to remedy coughs. It was originally native to Asia and Europe, but now it can be found growing wildly in all parts of the United States. It can be identified by its muted green foliage that is heart-shaped with pointed edges and thick fuzzy stems. It is non-toxic and non-addictive.

cat smelling catnip
Image Credit: Kassel95, Pixabay

What Chemical in Catnip Makes Cats Go Crazy?

Catnip contains an oil known as nepetalactone, which is responsible for the intoxicating effects it has on most felines. The nepetalactone is stored in microscopic bulbs that coat the plant’s leaves, stems, and pods. When a cat is exposed to catnip, whether through chewing, rubbing up against it, or through cat toys containing crushed catnip, the terpene-type chemical enters the cat’s nose or mouth and causes an emotional reaction.

The terpenes found in most herbs, like peppermint, are formed by a single enzyme, whereas in catnip, it has been reported that the terpenes are formed in a two-step process. An enzyme activates a precursor compound, which is then captured by a second enzyme to produce the interesting substance.

While investigating the evolution of catnip to learn how it came to produce the intoxicating chemical that affects cats, the unique and unusual chemical process inspired researchers to look into anti-cancer drugs and determine how to create valuable compounds that can be used to treat other diseases.

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What Does Catnip Do to Cats?

When your cat is exposed to catnip, the oil will enter your cat’s nose and bind to sensory neurons in the nasal cavity, activating areas of the brain that control emotion.

The effects of catnip can often imitate feline sex hormones, so a cat, male or female,  under the spell of catnip may display similar behaviors to a cat on heat.

Examples of the behaviors a cat may experience on catnip include:
  • Relaxation
  • Happiness
  • Displays of affection
  • Jumping and flipping
  • Rolling
  • Stretching
  • Drooling
  • Hyperactivity

Catnip can help reduce anxiety and pain for some cats; in fact, some vets recommend using catnip to assist with separation anxiety.

The dosage of catnip and how it is consumed will affect how your cat responds to it, but the effects of catnip will only last a mere 10–15 minutes.  It could take 30 minutes without smelling catnip for the cat to become receptive to the effects again.

cat eating catnip
Image Credit : Piqsels

Why Do Some Cats Not Respond to Catnip?

Catnip can affect cats differently. Some may be relaxed and mellow, while others become hyperactive and aggressive. However, some cats seem immune and don’t react at all. It is estimated that at least 30% of cats don’t respond to catnip, and it is suggested that it could be a genetically inherited trait.

It also seems that kittens and older cats are usually less affected, but with that being said, big cats such as tigers can also be put under the spell of catnip!

Is Catnip Safe for Cats?

Catnip is non-toxic and safe for cats, and it can be beneficial to their digestive system,  but like many things, too much catnip can result in some health issues, such as vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness.

Your cat should only have a little at a time, and it is also best to avoid highly concentrated catnip because the oil’s potency is very high.

cat eating catnip
Image Credit: Doug McLean, Shutterstock

How to Use Catnip

Catnip can encourage cats to play and train, which is why it is found in many cat toys. You can place a small amount of catnip onto your cat’s scratching post, which will encourage your cat to use it and create a positive association. You can also apply the herb to their carrier and blankets for veterinary trips in the car.

Catnip sprays are also available, and you can easily spray the solution on your cat’s toys, scratching posts, or carrier.

If you have catnip growing in your garden, you can use it fresh or dried, bearing in mind that fresh catnip is more potent. Catnip is easy to grow and can be found at most nurseries and garden centers. You can store your cats’ toys in a bag or jar with catnip and rotate them or sprinkle dried catnip on the desired items. You can also make your own cat toys stuffed with dried catnip or purchase a few from the pet store. If you want to keep your catnip fresh, you can freeze it in an airtight container.

Avoid combining catnip with food, as too much can cause stomach upset; moderation is key.

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Nepetalactone is the chemical responsible for making cats go crazy for catnip. Cats can be put under its spell by rubbing against or chewing it and often feel intoxicated and euphoric for about 15 minutes. Some cats seem to be immune to the effects of catnip, and it can affect cats differently. It also has some health benefits and is completely safe unless your cat overindulges and ingests too much, in which case it may experience an upset stomach. You can grow some of this magic herb in your garden for your cat to enjoy to ensure there are no added pesticides or additives.

Featured Image Credit: Anna Hoychuk, Shutterstock

About the Author

Christian Adams
Christian Adams
Christian is the Editor-in-Chief of Excited Cats and one of its original and primary contributors. A lifelong cat lover, now based in South East Asia, Christian and his wife are the proud parents of an 11-year-old son and four rescue cats: Trixie, Chloe, Sparky, and Chopper.

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