Why Do Cats Like Catnip? Plus 3 Catnip Benefits

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Catnip, known by its scientific name Nepeta cataria, is a plant native to Europe, Asia, and Africa. Although humans only recorded its first use among cats in 1941, some speculate that the Ancient Egyptians used it to please their cat companions. 

But why do cats like catnip, and what does catnip actually do to cats? Let’s go through some common questions people have about catnip and cats. 

What is in Catnip?

Catnip contains the chemical nepetalactone. Nepetalactone acts as a natural pesticide, making it unappealing for insects such as inchworms or caterpillars to consume. The chemical causes behavioral changes in about two-thirds of cats.

Catnip is also called cat mint, and is related to other mint varieties.

What Does Catnip Do to Cats?

When you cat smells catnip, dried or fresh, the volatile oils carrying nepetalactone enter his nasal tissue. Here, the chemical binds to receptors that stimulate sensory neurons, triggering a response in the olfactory area of your cat’s brain.

From here, various brain regions become involved. Researchers think catnip mimics feline sex pheromones. After exposure, the cat’s behavior begins to change.

Catnip’s effects on cats may include:

  • Licking
  • Sniffing
  • Scratching
  • Rolling over
  • Pawing
  • Impaired motor control
  • Shaking their head
  • Rubbing their cheeks
  • Vocalizing

In some cases, your cat will actually become more docile when exposed to catnip. Two-thirds of cats experience the effects listed above, while roughly one-third of cats will become more docile and relaxed. About 25% of cats are unaffected by catnip.

Fun fact: big cats like lions, tigers, leopards, and bobcats are also affected by catnip just like our furry house friends.

Why Do Cats Like Catnip? 

Put simply, cats like catnip because it makes them feel good. When a cat smells and touches catnip, nepetalactone absorbs into its nose and begins an immediate reaction. Catnip’s onset is extremely quick. 

Once absorbed, catnip begins working, and your cat feels a rush of euphoria. Catnip affects many parts of a cat’s brain, including the parts that control sensation, body functions, and emotions. 

Cats experience catnip in many ways, but the euphoric sensation makes them love this special plant. 

How Long Does Catnip Last?

The effects of catnip vary from cat to cat, but will last for about 10 minutes.

Is Catnip a Drug?

The effects of catnip have been compared to the effects of marijuana or LSD on humans. This has led many to the question “is catnip a drug?”

Catnip is not a drug. Catnip doesn’t need to be metabolized by your cat for it to take an effect. Cats just need to smell the oils present on the plant to be affected.

Is Catnip Illegal?

Catnip is not and has never been illegal. Catnip is a common plant that you can grow in your garden. We humans grow catnip for our cats, and for ourselves for teas, tinctures, and skincare products.

Benefits of Catnip for Cats

Although catnip is very similar to intoxicating substances in its effects, it isn’t a bad thing to give your cats. There are many beneficial reasons to give your cat catnip. Let’s go through three of the best benefits of catnip for cats. 

Initiates Playtime

When your cat sees you bring out the catnip, they’ll know it means playtime is close. By using catnip to initiate playtime, you can train your cat to be less disruptive. Instead of begging for your attention, they’re more likely to wait for catnip to play.

Calming

Catnip is naturally calming for cats. That means you can use catnip if your cat is being particularly disruptive. After the effects of catnip wear off, cats are significantly calmer. In some cases, catnip can have a calming effect right away.  

Improves Sleep

Catnip is also great at improving your cat’s sleep patterns. Cats that have trouble sleeping at night can have catnip about an hour before you want them to go to bed. After the catnip wears off, your cat will be much sleepier and much more willing to calm down for bed. 

How much catnip should I give my cat?

Provide your cat with a catnip toy on a regular schedule, such as every afternoon when you get home or each evening while you relax after dinner. Spritz some catnip hydrosol on his best scratching post, favorite blanket, or cat bed.

If you’re giving your cat loose catnip, sprinkle a tablespoon or two on his favorite cardboard scratching pad. Or, drop about a tablespoon’s worth in a small pile where your cat likes to play and relax.

How to Give Cats Catnip?

Catnip Benefits for Humans?

We mentioned above that we grow catnip not just for our cats to enjoy, but also for ourselves! So how do we use catnip?

Catnip aromatherapy

Catnip has a lovely scent. Just like catnip can help your cat relax, aromatherapy states that catnip can also help you relax (though not to quite the same extent as your cat!). Be sure not to utilize catnip essential oils around your cat, however – those are too strong and can be dangerous for your kitty.

Instead, catnip hydrosol is a lovely gentle way to infuse your surroundings with the pleasant scent of catnip. Try misting some catnip around the bedroom for a relaxing bedims routine – and don’t forget to give your kitty’s favorite cat tree a spritz too!

Catnip Tea: Benefits for Humans

Catnip is grown for tea and consumed widely. The benefits of catnip tea are said to include promoting relaxation and reducing tension. Catnip is also known to support digestive and respiratory health. Catnip tea has a lovely flavor, and contains antioxidants, thymol, and other beneficial plant compounds. Try brewing some catnip tea today!

Catnip Tincture

Mountain Rose Herbs states that “In traditional European herbalism and American folk herbalism, catnip was prized for its historical use to calm occasional nervousness and promote restful sleep.” They go on to state that catnip can be supportive of digestion, and is gentle enough for children and the elderly. Check out their catnip extract today.

why do cats like catnip

can cats overdose on catnip?

Cats cannot overdose on catnip and won’t be affected negatively by too much exposure to it. However, if they eat a lot of loose catnip, it will make them ill.

When Do Kittens Start Reacting to Catnip?

Kittens will begin reacting to catnip between 3 and 6 months of age. Before that, they won’t act strange or show effects if exposed. Still, don’t allow kittens to eat too much catnip. Once a kitten reaches 3-6 months of age, there is a 50-75% chance that she will respond to catnip as expected.

How Long does Catnip Take to Kick In?

Catnip starts to affect cats almost immediately. The active chemical is a volatile oil that affects cats by smell, which has a very fast mechanism of action.

What Does Catnip Do to Kittens?

Young kittens don’t respond to catnip, and it will have no effect on a kitten under 3 months of age. Between 3-6 months of age, most kittens will begin to respond to catnip.

How to Give Catnip to a Cat?

You can give your cat a catnip-filled toy, sprinkle loose catnip on a favorite cardboard scratching pad, or present a small pile of loose catnip to your cat. You could also spritz a catnip spray on your cat’s favorite cat tree or cat bed.

So Why Do Cats Like Catnip?

Cats like catnip because it gives them a euphoric effect. They experience behavioral and mood changes that can be amusing for us, while also giving your cat a pleasant experience. Not only that, but catnip can have positive effects on sleep, mood, and training.   

And as it turns out, many humans love catnip too! Not just because it relaxes us (though not as much as our cats), but for all the nutritious and delicious benefits we see from catnip tea and tinctures. Catnip for everybody!

Kelsey Madison

Kelsey Madison is a cat lover, fostering enthusiast, part time vet tech & writer. She has fostered close to 300 animals over the last 10+ years, and currently has 3 beautiful tabby cats who love to stick their faces in her morning lattes. She is passionate about helping others develop a deeper understanding of their beloved felines and learn more about fostering.