Catnip: Why Do Cats Love it?

March 15, 2017

Do you give catnip to your feline friends? If so, you’ve seen the comical antics that cats on catnip exhibit. The substance seems to take over their thoughts and actions. They roll in it with glee, paw at it without pause, and nothing can distract them from the fun and frolicking. Why do cats love this stuff?

Catnip provides a euphoric experience for most cats, and it can be inhaled or eaten to produce the desired outcome. Both methods target receptors in the brain, but interestingly, they have different effects. A cat that inhales catnip tends to become hyperactive, while a cat that eats catnip relaxes and mellows out. Whether presented loose or contained in a cat toy, the leaves and stems of the catnip plant cause an immediate reactions in cats. They can smell a chemical compound in the plant, nepetalactone, which produces a “high” or sense of joy in the cats, which has been compared to hallucinogenic experiences in people. The effects of catnip last about 10 minutes before wearing off.

Cats on “nip” have differing responses to the substance, from mildly pleasant to incredibly awesome. Fluffy seems to chill out and smile like the iconic Cheshire Cat when he cuddles his catnip mouse. Precious rolls and rolls until you pick up the catnip so she can return to normal, but Jethro likes to show off. He purrs and purrs and vocalizes with glee until drooling in delight. In general, cats just act a little goofy when responding to catnip, and they seem to know when enough is enough. After a few minutes of enjoyment, most cats will simply ignore the catnip as the effects wear off. They will go about their routine, but may return to the catnip after a couple of hours…then whole experience happens again.

Dinah, a slinky Siamese, walks away from catnip. I guess she’s just too cool. Not all cats respond to catnip; many have no reaction at all. Older cats and young kittens may not respond due to developing or declining senses. Catnip also has effects on other species. The plant repels many types of insects, and it has been used in human medicine to treat nausea, headaches, and pain. Some experts attribute catnip sensitivity to heredity, and it’s interesting to note that big cats, such as lions and panthers, have been known to react like housecats when provided with catnip—a sight I’d love to see!

The catnip plant is related to mint, and its scientific name is nepeta cataria. It is also known as catmint or catswort, and it can be found in many parts of the world. There are more than 250 species of catnip today, and they produce pretty blue, white, pink, or purple flowers. Fresh catnip, which you can grow in your garden, has a strong effect on cats. Most commercially sold catnip (loose or in toys) is dried, yet still effective. For more information on catnip and its amusing effects on our feline friends, read our article on “Is Catnip Safe for Cats?

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