Why Do Some Cats Love Catnip?

The word catnip probably conjures up images of cats rolling around, kicking, and rubbing all over the catnip leaves and stems. But, what is catnip? And why do some cats respond to it and others don’t?

What Is Catnip?

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a herb that grows in the wild or can be cultivated. Catnip is member of the mint family and is also known as catswort, catwort, and catmint.

Catnip grows widely in Asia, Europe, and North America. Catnip is native to southern and eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and parts of China and has been naturalized in northern Europe, New Zealand, and North America.

Catnip is a perennial herbaceous plant that flowers in late spring to fall.

Drawing from 1796 showing the catnip plant, flowers, and seeds.
Drawing of Nepeta cataria from Sturm, J., & Sturm, J. G. (1796). Deutschlands Flora in Abbildungen: Tafeln.

How Does It Affect Cats?

We’ve all experienced the feeling of elation during a new experience. But for a cat, that feeling can be achieved just by smelling something as simple as catnip. It turns out that it’s a particular chemical in the plant called nepetalactone. When certain cats get a whiff of this, it triggers pheromones, which are chemicals that cause all kinds of “feel good” reactions that last roughly 10 minutes.

The chemical reaction starts when the cat sniff catnip and nepetalactone trigger the neurons of sensory nerves. These neurons then send messages to the olfactory bulb for further processing and then deliver the information to the hypothalamus or amygdala. Nepetalactone just acts like pheromones that’s why cats behave like they are in heat. 

 What Percentage Of Cats Loves Catnip?

A survey co-sponsored by scientific literature found that approximately 50-70 percent of cats responded positively to their experience with catnip. Cat likeness with catnip is related to hereditary. If the cat has genes that respond to catnip then it will show an immediate response. 

What is the Typical Repsonse to Catnip?

Cats showing the characteristic catnip response (sniffing, licking, shaking their head, rubbing (chin/cheek) and rolling on their back, sometimes accompanied by drooling and raking their claws across the catnip.

Some cats like to eat the catnip.

An orange tabby cat licking catnip from the floor.
Some cats enjoy eating catnip.

Six Phases of Catnip Enjoyment

Researchers have documented six phases of a cat’s reaction to catnip. These phases are:

  1. Sniffing of the catnip
  2. Rubbing on and licking the catnip
  3. Rolling on to the catnip and increased licking
  4. Increased rolling and animated play or movement
  5. Sudden and urgent grooming
  6. Abrupt ending of the cat’s interaction with the catnip (usually after about 10-15 minutes)

Why Doesn’t Some Cats Don’t Like Cat Nip?

All cats do not receive the same effect of catnip. Some of them may respond differently to it. To ensure that you’re knowledgeable about these idiosyncrasies, here are some of the reasons why your cat may not seem interested in your offering of catnip:

Genetics

As you know that nepetalactone is the active ingredient in catnip and it binds with olfactory receptors to produce an amazing reaction. But studies have found out that genetics play an important role in this process. Those 50 to 70% of cats that experience the reaction of catnip have that receptor. The remaining one third feel completely indifferent to catnip due to their genetic makeup. 

Overexposure 

Humans become immune to fragrance over time. The same is true for cats and catnip as well. Generally, a cat will become used to the smell of catnip after about 15 minutes or a little bit longer if they are highly involved in playing with whatever toy has been dusted with it. 

However, your cat will most likely come back to the site of your application within another hour or so as their olfactory senses become highly focused once again which allows them to smell just tiny amounts of the chemical compound present on their toy. 

If your cat seems uninterested in a catnip toy after reacting to it at first, consider whether she has grown tired of playing with it. Are you leaving that toy around for your cat all the time? If so, try taking the toy away when not in use and bringing it out about once a week. Your cat will likely begin to enjoy the toy again after some time has passed since its last use.

Age

Age is another factor that plays an important role in the effect of catnip on cats. Kittens that are below the age of 3 months have yet not developed the olfactory receptors so at this point they will not be affected by catnip. When they are around the age of 6 months old you can try introducing them to it again to see if it does affect them; once you’re sure it’s safe for them just feed it to them as an occasional treat. 

Catnip for Cats

Catnip is sold both as a fresh product grown in a small container and in bags containing crushed pieces of the dried plant. Both can be offered to cats.

The benefit of dried catnip is that it can be stored for a longer period of time.

A zoomed in view of an open bag of dried catnip.
Dried catnip.

How To Give Catnip To Your Cat?

Cats love to play and a lot of pet owners think that catnip makes their pet better at it. Catnip comes in a lot of products that can easily be bought everywhere, including online. When you first give your cats some catnip, they can happily enjoy this lovely herbal treat by either letting them lick or eat it, or you can even feed the herb to your pets through toys. 

However, if you feel like using catnip for training then we suggest that you gently rub your hands with the plant so that its scent can be transferred after which you reward the behavior you want from your feline friend.

If you sprinkle some catnip around their favorite posts, beds, and toys the chances are, they will use them all the more happily! If you do this a few times and keep on encouraging your cat with the sprinkled catnip then there is a chance she might grow to love these objects even more than usual.

Alternatives to Catnip

If your cat is one of the roughly one-third that doesn’t response positively to catnip, there are a few other plants you can try.

The most popular alternative is silvervine. Silver vine (Actinidia polygama) is a member of the kiwi family (Actinidiaceae) and is native to the mountainous regions of China, Japan, and Russia.

One study found that 79% of the cats responded positively to silver vine compared to Tatarian honeysuckle (53%) and valerian root (47%).

Conclusion 

Catnip (or Nepeta cataria) is a plant in the mint family that grows in the wild in many parts of the world. It has a long history of being used in herbal medicine but is also used as an ingredient in cat toys to stimulate cats.

Catnip can have a strong effect on cats, with many cats becoming very excited and playful when they smell it. In some cats, catnip can have no effect at all and that’s due to genetics.

References

Bol, S., Caspers, J., Buckingham, L., Anderson-Shelton, G. D., Ridgway, C., Buffington, C. T., … & Bunnik, E. M. (2017). Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and catnip (Nepeta cataria). BMC veterinary research13(1), 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12917-017-0987-6

Todd, N. B. (1962). Inheritance of the catnip response in domestic cats. Journal of Heredity53(2), 54-56.

Palen, G. F., & Goddard, G. V. (1966). Catnip and oestrous behaviour in the cat. Animal behaviour14(2-3), 372-377.https://doi.org/10.1016/S0003-3472(66)80100-8

Hatch, R. C. (1972). Effect of drugs on catnip (Nepeta cataria)-induced pleasure behavior in cats. Am J Vet Res33(1), 143-55.

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