If you have a cat, you probably know that kitties tend to go crazy over catnip—and any toys filled with catnip. Have you ever wondered why exactly cats love catnip so much and what causes their crazy reaction? The short answer is that catnip causes a chemical reaction in your cat’s brain. According to scientists, the cat-catnip connection isn’t just about your cat’s pleasure; scientists believe that cats evolved to love catnip because it is actually a very effective bug repellent1. In this article, we will discuss what exactly catnip is, the specific behaviors catnip causes in cats, and whether or not catnip works on every cat.

What Is Catnip?

Catnip is actually an herb that is native to Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and was introduced to the United States in 1796. A member of the mint family, its scientific name is Nepeta cataria. Catnip plants can grow as high as 3 feet and are characterized by brown leaves with sharp edges and tiny purple flowers that bloom between late spring and early autumn. Because they attract desirable insects such as butterflies and bees and repel undesirable creatures such as mosquitoes and deer, catnip plants are often grown in backyard gardens.

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How Does Catnip Work?

Catnip plants contain an essential oil called nepetalactone. Whenever a cat plays with a catnip plant or toy, this oil is released into its mouth or nose, stimulating the olfactory bulb of the cat’s brain. The information is then received by the hypothalamus, which controls your cat’s physical responses, and the amygdala, which controls your cat’s emotions. It is believed that catnip acts like a pheromone, which triggers a sexual response in your cat.

This chemical process is similar to the human brain on psychoactive drugs, which is probably why it is so entertaining for both you and your cat when you give it some catnip.

How Do Cats Behave on Catnip?

If you’ve never witnessed a cat with catnip, there are certain behaviors you can expect a cat to exhibit when you introduce catnip or a catnip toy. In general, cats show interest in the catnip by rubbing themselves against it, licking it, or even rolling their whole bodies in it. Some cats have a fairly subdued response in which they seem to be relaxed as a result of the catnip, but some cats get pretty crazy on catnip. They might run around, growl, drool, or meow a lot, and some cats can even become somewhat aggressive. All in all, the response does not last very long; you should find that the effects of the catnip will wear off in around 10 minutes.

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Does Catnip Work on Every Cat?

Sadly, catnip does not work on every cat. Your cat needs to have a certain genetic makeup for the catnip to be effective and as many as 40 percent of cats do not carry the genes that cause a reaction to catnip. Keep in mind that while some cats may not respond to catnip, there may be other plants that they do respond to.


In summary, cats love catnip because it makes them feel good. If you want to see how catnip affects your cat, you can purchase some cat toys filled with catnip to see how it reacts!

Featured Image Credit: Anna Hoychuk, Shutterstock