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Catnip – what’s the attraction?
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Catnip – what’s the attraction?

The Latin name for this pungent member of the mint family is Nepeta cataria (of a cat), which reveals its long connection with the feline of the species. Catnip is a common sight in hedgerows and grassy wastelands. It has a tall, downy stem that, in midsummer, bears a spike of white or pale blue flowers. Cats, and wild animals such as foxes, are known to seek it out to roll in it. Why? It’s because this wayside plant contains an essential oil called nepetalactone, which is believed to cause an intoxication-like effect.


The catnip effect isn’t just something seen in domestic cats, it’s also exhibited by other members of the cat family, such as lions, tigers, cougars and lynx.

Cats inhabit a world where the sense of smell is crucial. It tells them all about their surroundings and helps them to navigate safely through life. A cat’s nose is lined with millions of specialised odour-detecting cells – just one of the reasons why catnip has such an effect on them, as they are so finely tuned to the language of scent.

How cats get the catnip effect

Writing on Cats Protection’s website, herbalist Debs Cook, explains it like this: “When the cat smells catnip, the scent molecules travel to a receptor above the palate in the roof of the mouth known as the Vomeronasal Organ or Jacob’s Organ. This organ helps your cat to analyse the scent of other cats and its environmental surroundings. When a cat begins its catnip trip, they collect the aroma from the catnip in their mouth, then use their tongue to flick the scent up to the vomeronasal organ. A cat making use of their vomeronasal organ exhibits a facial expression that we would call a frown, as the cat frowns, their upper lip curls up and the mouth will partially open, the cat frown is known as the Flehmen Response.”


Ingesting catnip (which is safe to eat) has no effect on a cat, it’s the nepetalactone vapour that the catnip gives off, that your feline friend reacts to. In fact, cats can smell nepetalactone even if its 1 part per 1,000,000,000,000 (trillion) parts in the air.

Not all cats react to catnip

Whether your feline friend falls for the pungent power of catnip is down to genetics. For some cats, their olfactory system – or sense of smell – is simply less susceptible to it. Scientists estimate that around one cat in two inherits a sensitivity to the herb. But you won't know if your kitten is one of them until they reach the age of three to six months. 

According to a Study on the Inheritance of the Catnip Response in Domestic Cats by Neil B Todd, kittens under eight weeks exhibited no reaction to catnip, He noted that when kittens are given it, the “catnip often produces a distinct avoidance response in young kittens which is gradually replaced by indifference in non-responders and by heightened curiosity in responders”. According to Debs Cook: “if your cat doesn't respond, then you may be interested to know that just less than a third of cats who don't respond to catnip, may react instead to Valerian (Valeriana officinalis).”

Same plant, different effects

Catnip can have contradictory effects. While most cats are sent into a state of ecstasy when they smell it, some become very sleepy after exposure to it. For some, the euphoria translates into aggressive playfulness. At the same time, it makes others mellow and calm. 

 “If the catnip is an actual garden plant, they will roll all over it until it's squashed flat in order to get the plant to release its nepetalactone and, whilst they're doing it, they're in a heightened state looking like they are away with the cat fairies.”

Herbalist Debs Cook

Debs Cook says: “Cats that are, shall we say 'sensitive' to nepetalactone show a range of behaviours including sniffing it, rubbing the head or body against it, licking and chewing it, rubbing their heads and chins on it, grabbing it between their front paws and bunny kicking it with their back paws. If the catnip is an actual garden plant, they will exhibit the same behaviours as just mentioned and will also roll all over the plant until it's squashed flat, they may even chew the plant, in order to get it to release its nepetalactone and, whilst they're doing it, they're in a heightened state looking like they are away with the cat fairies.”


If you plant catnip in your garden, it’s not only your cat who’ll appreciate it. Catnip is recommended by the Royal Horticultural Society as an excellent attractant and nectar source for bees and other beneficial insects such as butterflies, and it also deters aphids and ants.

How long does the catnip effect last?

Though intense, that bliss is usually short-lived, lasting about 10 minutes for most cats. Debs Cook adds: “When a cat has a nip adventure, the effect can last up to 15 minutes. In my experience with my cats it’s usually more like five minutes – then the cat becomes over stimulated and leaves the nip toy for a cool down period. It’s worth noting that in some cats, catnip can make them exhibit aggressive behaviour and even agitation, so they may play a little rougher for a while.”

Using catnip to your advantage

If your cat reacts to catnip with excitement and playfulness then you can use it to your advantage to encourage them to use a scratching post, rather than your furniture, by rubbing the scent of catnip on it. Catnip is also an excellent herb to consider using for highly strung animals to help keep them calm and happy in stressful situations. For these cats, using a catnip mouse for play can help them to relax after a stressful event such as a trip to the vet, or if visitors are in the house. It may be best to limit exposure to catnip-filled toys to around 15 to 30 minutes, as cats can get over-stimulated if left to play with it for too long or too often. Keep it for when you really need to use it to your advantage, such as a distraction or as a reward.

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THE SCENT OF A FELINE While dogs might be famous for their incredible sense of smell, for cats, their nose is their most important sensory receptor. Cats use scent detection to understand and make sense of the world around them…

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Sources: cats.org.uk, pets.webmd.com, victorianaursery.co.uk

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