kitten sniffing catnip

What Does Catnip Do to a Cat?

How catnip works on our feline friends

You’ve probably heard of catnip before, and you may have even seen your cat go crazy for the stuff.

But what exactly is catnip, and what does it do to our feline friends? In this blog post, we’ll explore the science behind catnip and how it affects cats.

Cat with catnip, how does catnip work on cats?
Tabby with a catnip pouch

What Is Catnip?

Catnip is a perennial herb in the mint family that is native to Europe and Asia. The plant has small, ovate leaves and white or pale purple flowers.

The active ingredient in catnip is nepetalactone, a volatile oil that is secreted in the leaves and stem.

When cats smell this oil, they experience a range of reactions that can include sniffing, head shaking, drooling, chin and cheek rubbing, head rolling, body stretching, jumping, running, and playing.

In the highly amusing video below, you can see the cats react immediately to the nip.

Some cats will also eat the leaves or roll in them. The effects of catnip typically last for 10-15 minutes before wears off. 

How Does Catnip Work?

Although we don’t know exactly how catnip works on a neurological level, we do know that it binds to receptors in a cat’s nose.

These receptors are similar to those that bind with marijuana in humans.

Once bound, the nepetalactone activates certain neurons which then relay messages to the part of the brain responsible for emotion.

This activation results in the behavioral changes that we see in cats when they smell catnip. 

Not all cats react to catnip in the same way; somewhere between 50-67% of cats are affected by it at all. In addition, kittens and older cats are less likely to respond than adult cats.

Those that do respond tend to fall into one of two categories: “sensitive” or “insensitive.”

Sensitive cats will display all of the typical behaviors listed above while insensitive cats may just rub their faces on the plant or show signs of relaxation. 

Next time you see your fur friend going crazy for their latest ‘nip toy, you can rest assured knowing that they’re not actually going insane—they’re just enjoying the effects of this fascinating herb!

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