grey tabby lying on its back in green grass with derp tongue sticking out

Why do cats love catnip so much? This is a question many cat owners have asked over the years.

Cats are drawn to catnip due to a volatile oil called nepetalactone, which the plant naturally produces. This “artificial cat pheromone” affects the behavior centers of the cat’s brain. An array of responses can be triggered, from purring and relaxation to playful aggression.

Read on to learn more about why cats love catnip so much.

What Is Catnip

Catnip, botanical name Nepeta cataria, is an herb from the mint family. It is a vigorous, weedy perennial plant that is hardy in zones 3-9. It often invades disturbed soils and can be found along the edges of roads, fields, and other sunny spots.

Catnip was brought to North America by European settlers and became a staple garden plant. As it is invasive, it has since then spread widely and can frequently be found “in the wild’.

The catnip odor that is detectable by humans has been described as pungent, like a cross between oregano and thyme with skunky undertones. Needless to say, people are not as fond of it as cats are!

closeup photo of catnip plant with water droplets on its leaves

How Catnip Works

Catnip contains several volatile or essential oils but one, in particular, is responsible for why cats are so drawn to it.

This oil, nepetalactone, binds to the olfactory receptors of cats. From there, signals are sent to the parts of the cat’s brain that govern behavior responses, including sexual behavior.

Nepetalactone essentially acts like an artificial cat pheromone, and many of the behaviors exhibited by cats under the influence of catnip are similar to that of cats in heat.

How Do Cats React To Catnip

In most cats, catnip causes a kind of euphoria that is often accompanied by rolling around and purring. Other cats can become very aggressive when exposed to the herb and may fight with other cats or toys they think are intruders.

In a nutshell, catnip excites cats and gives them a feeling of euphoria.

Are All Cats Affected By Catnip?

The effect of catnip is genetically determined. It can be very unpredictable as not all cats are affected by it. In fact, only about 50% – 70% of cats respond to catnip in any given way.

Also, kittens and older cats tend to be less responsive than middle-aged cats. Kittens generally do not respond to catnip until about six months of age.

orange cat lying on side with eyes closed relaxed

How Long Do Catnip Effects Last?

The effects of catnip typically last only a few minutes, but the intensity and duration can vary from cat to cat. Some cats may be affected for as long as 15-20 minutes.

Once the initial effects wear off, cats usually do not respond to the same catnip again for around an hour or more.

Additionally, some cats that are affected by catnip initially may eventually display a decreased response or stop responding to it altogether.

Can Cats Overdose On Catnip?

It is not possible for cats to overdose on catnip. Catnip is a a natural, herbaceous plant, and the chemical compound called nepetalactone that it produces and which stimulates a pleasurable response in cats is not dangerous in any way.

Although catnip is not considered toxic to cats, consuming large amounts of it can cause some mild gastrointestinal upset, such as vomiting and diarrhea. However, these effects are usually temporary and resolve on their own.

Are People Effected By Catnip?

The brains of humans are different from the brains of cats, and catnip does not have the same euphoric effect on people as it does on cats. It does not produce a “high” in people, nor does it any of the behaviors that are associated with catnip and cats.

However, catnip is used in herbal medicine for its mild calming effects. It is also a popular ingredient in some teas and is believed by some to soothe the stomach, alleviate headaches and other ailments.

What Is The Best Way To Give Catnip To My Cat?

Fresh catnip has the strongest effect on cats. The best way to give your cat catnip is by growing it in your own garden. The leaves can then be clipped off and stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator or frozen until ready to use.

Dried catnip can also be purchased at pet stores and used in toys or sprinkled on scratching posts. Catnip spray is another popular option for cats who do not respond to the dried herb.

tabby cat lying on its back in the grass

Loose, dried catnip can be messy! A popular method of containing the herb is to put it inside a fabric toy. This way, your cat can enjoy the herb without getting catnip all over your home.

My experience with my current cats is that they love fresh catnip the most. They respond to a low degree to dried catnip, and not at all to the spray. My suggestion is to experiment with different versions to see what works best for you and your cat.


I hoped that I have helped answer your question about why cats love catnip so much. It’s an amazing herb that provides cats with pleasure, and it’s something that many cats can enjoy.

Not to mention the entertainment value it provides us! So why not give it a try? You and your cat may just have a great time with it.

goofing looing black and white cat meowing with its eyes closed


  • Dr. Wendy Wilkins, DVM, PhD

    Dr. Wendy Wilkins is an experienced veterinarian and epidemiologist with over 20 years of expertise. She holds a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree and a Doctorate in Epidemiology from the University of Saskatchewan. Throughout her career, Dr. Wilkins has excelled in clinical practice, academia, research, and regulatory veterinary medicine. She is a respected voice in knowledge dissemination, delivering factual information in a readable and understandable manner through articles, books, and public engagements.

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