Why Do Cats Like Catnip?

Cats like a lot of things: naps, eating, playing and laying in a warm spot. But one of the things cats like the most is catnip; they go crazy over it.

Catnip Explained

Contrary to the belief of many, Nepeta cataria (a.k.a. catnip) isn’t a drug. It’s an herb that’s related to the mint family. The chemical structure is similar to that of the herb valerian, which can stimulate the nervous system in humans and cats. The effects of catnip in a cat can last between 10 and 30 minutes before a cat becomes indifferent to the herb. After a couple of hours, a cat will be silly again if the catnip is reintroduced.

A kitten will not show if he’s responsive to catnip until he is about 2 to 3 months old. Catnip is not harmful to a cat, and constant exposure to it will not hurt him. However, the sensation a cat feels when exposed to the herb will diminish if he’s around it all the time.

Why Cats Like Cat Nip

A cat liking catnip is an inherited trait, which is why some cats love it and some don’t. The response is due to an autosomal gene. When cats love this herb, they will roll in it, lick it, eat it and go crazy for a couple of minutes. The thing cats go wild about in catnip is a substance called nepetalactone, which causes a chemical reaction in the feline brain. Scientists are not sure exactly why this happens. The essential oil within the leaves is what contains the nepetalactone, and it can be released by shredding the leaves.

A cat’s response to catnip is said to be hallucinogenic, and the crazy reaction they get from the herb is from how it smells. The roof of a cat’s mouth, above the palate, is where the receptor is located on a cat that enables them to get a good whiff of catnip. This is why catnip in gel caps does not raise any excitement in a cat - they can’t smell the herb. Cats may actually eat or chew catnip to further break the leaves down so they can release the oil that's producing the sensation they’re experiencing. Interestingly, cats that do not have a sense of smell can even get a pleasurable reaction when exposed to catnip. When a cat sniffs catnip, the herb acts like a stimulant. However, when a cat eats catnip, it acts more like a sedative. Not all cats react the same way around catnip.

Uses for Catnip

If a cat loves catnip, the herb can be used as a training device. For example, you can purchase catnip spray or use small, broken leaves and place them on a scratching post to encourage a cat to use it.

Researchers have found that catnip works as an excellent mosquito repellent, which is beneficial because mosquitoes can carry parasites. The herb can also repel cockroaches, and rodents seem to dislike the smell.

Cats cannot get addicted to catnip and they can’t overdose on it. Catnip is a good way for a cat owner to reward her cat and let him have some fun.