Why Do Cats Like Catnip?

If your cat responds in a big way to that mystifying little herb commonly known as catnip, then you've probably wondered what it is about these innocuous looking leaves that make kitties completely lose their heads. All three of my cats love the stuff. Murphy rolls around in it and becomes hyper alert. Molly rolls in it, eats it, purrs like an engine, and tends to get very sedate. Riley sniffs at it, drools all over the floor (and himself), and becomes very protective of it, sometimes growling at those who approach his precious stash. Though I've not experienced it in my cats, other owners report that their felines appear to experience hallucinations! So what exactly is catnip, and how is it affecting our kitties' noggins?


The scientific name for catnip is Nepata and is a cousin of two herbs many of us commonly use in our kitchens: spearmint and oregano. There are various species of Nepata, but Nepata cataria (Camphor catnip) is the most common. What sets Nepata apart from other herbs is that it contains the active molecule nepatalactone--something which scientists believe mimics a feline pheromone. Crushing the leaves and stems of catnip releases nepatalactone which, if inhaled, binds with a cat's smell receptors and acts as a stimulant. This is why cats rub and chew on it--these actions release its active ingredient. If eaten, however, nepatalactone can act as a sedative rather than a stimulant, which can explain why many of us have noticed very differing reactions to catnip from our pets.

So does this mean that we're turning our beloved cats into junkies? No need to worry in that regard, as catnip doesn't appear to be addictive and they can't OD on it--in the traditional sense of the word. (However, if they eat too much catnip, it may lead to vomiting or loose stools.) In fact, increased exposure appears to have the opposite effect of addiction--cats just won't be interested in it anymore. For this reason, we should only offer catnip (or sprays with catnip extract) to them every once in a while (typically once every week or two) so that the fun can last a lifetime. You've probably also heard that kittens under 8 weeks are typically not responsive to the stuff, and only open up to its pleasures with age. Though this is generally true, it's not always the case, as some do report that their kittens go wild over it.

If your cat falls into the group of those genetically predisposed to love catnip, consider yourself lucky, as catnip-induced antics are as entertaining to cat owners as the herb appears to be for cats. That is, unless your cat becomes so protective of catnip that it causes aggressive behavior towards other pets. If that's the case, best offer it to the possessive cat when no other kitties are around, just to be safe.

By Maya M.