What Does Catnip Do to Cats?

plant of catnip

Catnip causes a range of behaviors in cats, including excitement, rolling, rubbing, purring, and sometimes calmness.

This reaction is due to the compound nepetalactone found in catnip, which affects cats’ sensory neurons.

What Is Catnip?

Catnip, also known as Nepeta cataria, is a perennial herb from the mint family.

The plant contains an essential oil called nepetalactone, which is responsible for the effects seen in cats.

Nepetalactone binds to receptors inside a cat’s nose, stimulating sensory neurons that lead to behavioral changes.

Why Do Cats Love Catnip?

Cats are attracted to catnip because of its stimulating effects.

The scent of catnip triggers a chemical response in their brains, similar to a pheromone response.

This reaction can cause a variety of behaviors, from playful antics to relaxation.

How Catnip Affects Cats

When a cat encounters catnip, it can display a range of behaviors. These effects generally last for about 10 to 15 minutes. Common reactions include:

  • Excitement: Cats may become hyperactive, running around, jumping, and playing energetically.
  • Rolling and Rubbing: Many cats will roll on the ground, rub their faces against the catnip, and purr loudly.
  • Relaxation: After the initial excitement, some cats may become very relaxed and calm.
  • Drooling: Some cats might drool excessively when exposed to catnip.

The Biological Mechanism

The primary component in catnip, nepetalactone, binds to receptors in a cat’s nasal tissue.

This triggers a response in the olfactory bulb, which then sends signals to various parts of the brain, including the amygdala (emotions) and the hypothalamus (regulates body functions).

This complex reaction results in the behaviors associated with catnip.

Why Do Cats Go Crazy for Catnip?

black and white cat with dilated eyes

Not all cats are affected by catnip; sensitivity is hereditary, and about 50-75% of cats show a response to it.

The “crazy” behavior is due to the stimulation of the central nervous system, leading to temporary excitement and euphoria.

The Genetics of Catnip Sensitivity

The response to catnip is genetic, and not all cats have the gene that makes them sensitive to its effects.

Kittens and older cats are less likely to react strongly to catnip.

Benefits of Catnip for Cats

Catnip can provide several benefits for cats, including:

  • Mental Stimulation: Helps keep indoor cats entertained and mentally stimulated.
  • Exercise: Encourages physical activity, which is beneficial for a cat’s health.
  • Stress Relief: Can help reduce anxiety and stress, promoting relaxation.

Safe Use of Catnip

While catnip is safe for cats, it should be used in moderation.

Overexposure can lead to a decrease in sensitivity. It’s best to use catnip as a treat or for occasional play sessions.

Alternatives to Catnip

If your cat does not respond to catnip, there are other plants that can have similar effects:

  • Silvervine: Another plant that many cats respond to, often more strongly than catnip.
  • Valerian Root: Can stimulate cats and is an alternative for those not affected by catnip.
  • Tatarian Honeysuckle: Known to elicit similar reactions in cats.

For a deeper understanding of catnip and its effects, you can refer to the detailed explanations on Wikipedia.


Catnip causes a range of behaviors in cats due to the compound nepetalactone.

While it stimulates some cats, leading to playful and sometimes crazy behavior, others may become calm and relaxed.

Understanding how catnip affects your cat can help you use it effectively to provide mental stimulation and stress relief.