Why Kitties Go Crazy for Catnip

By Dr. Steven Wolchinsky, Managing Veterinarian

The effects of catnip are like magic. I’m sure you’ve seen your kitty go crazy for the stuff – rubbing all over it, patting at it, writhing around on the floor. But what is it about catnip that makes our feline friends have this reaction? 

What is catnip? 

Catnip is actually a member of the mint family and is originally from Asia, Africa and Europe, but now is found all over the world, growing as a weed. It contains a chemical, nepetalactone. It is this chemical that triggers the amazing response many cats have when they encounter catnip. 

Why cats love it 

Nepetalactone is found in the leaves and stems of catnip. When it enters a cat’s nose, it binds to receptors on sensory neurons lining the nasal cavity. These neurons activate different areas of the brain that control emotion and behavior. The effect is that cats tend to roll in it, lick it, and even eat it. Some meow and run around wildly, while others drool or become sedate and docile.

The exact response depends on the cat and the dose consumed or inhaled. Like many things, the more your kitty eats or inhales the stronger the effect. Some cats that inhale too much may become anxious and even a bit aggressive. The effect will wear off quickly and usually within 15 minutes most cats are back to normal.

Not all cats are affected by catnip. Sensitivity to nepetalactone is an inherited trait, and it’s not just housecats that react. Even big, wild felines like tigers can be susceptible to it. 

Is it safe? 

Despite the effects it has on some cats, catnip is harmless to our feline friends. And although cats seem to go mad over catnip, it is not addictive.

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