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What does Catnip do to Cats?

What does Catnip do to Cats? | BetterVet

We have long been fascinated by the euphoria our cat experiences in response to catnip. A whole range of catnip products is available to enhance our kitty’s playtime, encourage mental stimulation, and even help them relax. Their behavior can be quite unique, so what exactly does catnip do to a cat?

What is Catnip?

Catnip, or to give it its scientific name Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It originally grew in Europe and Asia but now grows globally and can even be found growing in gardens or roadsides. It’s also sometimes known as catwort or catmint.

The secret to catnip is a chemical substance found within the plant called nepetalactone – this is what cats go crazy for. Nepetalactone is found in the stems, seeds, and leaves of the catnip plant, and it gets released when the plant is crushed, chewed, or rubbed. That’s why cats often like to roll in catnip, as they are trying to release more of the oily secretions to get more of a fix for the delicious smell.

What Does Catnip Do to Cats?

When cats get a whiff of catnip, nepetalactone enters their nose. There are two mechanisms involved in what happens next. Cats have a highly specialized organ at the back of their throat called the vomeronasal organ. It’s a bit like a brain in the nose, and it’s designed to detect pheromones, which are the sex hormones that cats use to let others know they are ready to breed. The interesting fact about nepetalactone is that it mimics these pheromones, binding to receptors in the vomeronasal organ.

However, a group of scientists has found that the olfactory system may also play a role in the way cats respond to nepetalactone. When a cat inhales nepetalactone, it binds to another specialized group of cells called the olfactory cells.

What Does Catnip Do to Cat’s Brains?

Once nepetalactone has been detected by the olfactory system and/or the vomeronasal organ, signals are sent to the brain. The signals trigger the release of endorphins. A strange and unique period of behavior changes then follows. This response can be likened to the ‘high’ humans get from certain narcotic drugs. Not to be confused with cannabis products, which contain THC and can be toxic to your cat, catnip is considered to be safe for cats.

We don’t fully understand why cats are so obsessed with catnip. But it’s thought that the brain interprets it the same way as pheromones. This is why we see the typical species-specific behavioral responses to catnip such as playing, feeding, and predatory behaviors. However, these responses are also known to be random and intermittent.

Behavioral Responses to Catnip

Usually, cats have a bit of a mad moment when they play with catnip. But there can be a huge range of ways they can respond to the endorphin release.

  • Running, skipping, or jumping
  • Stretching
  • Drooling 
  • Increased alertness
  • Dilated pupils
  • Increased desire to play or exercise
  • Relaxation
  • Increased desire to sleep or rest
  • Increased desire for affection or attention from you
  • Aggression – catnip should be avoided if your cat responds in this way

The effects of catnip are short-lived and tend to wear off after just 30 minutes. This is because cats lose their sensitivity to nepetalactone after this time. Once it’s worn off, cats usually become quiet and relaxed. And you don’t need to worry – the effects of catnip are not addictive, and cats cannot become dependent or overdose on it.

Catnip Doesn’t Affect All Cats

It’s presumed that the way individual cats respond to catnip is genetic. Around 20-30% of cats don’t produce any response to it at all. So if your cat doesn’t seem to like catnip, it’s nothing to worry about, and is actually quite common. Kittens don’t have any sensitivity to catnip or nepetalactone before they are 3-6 months old.

How Should I Give Catnip to my Cat?

Catnip can be used in several ways to make playtime more interesting and exciting or even to help your cat feel calm and relaxed. You’ll find a huge range of products containing catnip, or you could even have a go at growing your own! Try out a few different products  to see what your cat likes best:

  • Catnip treats
  • Fresh catnip
  • Dried catnip – this can be sprinkled on other toys or bedding to make it more attractive or interesting for your cat
  • Catnip toys such as balls, mice, and scratching posts 
  • Catnip spray – this is a very concentrated form, so ensure you follow the manufacturer's instructions

In conclusion, cats can become happy, relaxed, and excited when they get a sniff of catnip because of the compound nepetalactone that’s found in the plant. Every cat has a slightly different response to catnip, with some cats not reacting at all. But it is a safe and non-toxic plant that you can use in a number of ways to enhance your cat's mental and physical well-being and make playtime more enjoyable. If you’ve just welcomed a new cat to your home, then catnip might be a fun way to help build a bond through play.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does catnip do to cats?

Nepetalactone, the compound found in catnip, is thought to mimic pheromones that when sniffed, trigger an endorphin release followed by species-specific behaviors such as feeding, playing, and predatory behaviors.

What happens when a cat smells catnip?

The smell receptors in a cat’s nose detect nepetalactone, which sends messages to the brain to release endorphins. Cats usually become excited, happy, hyperactive, or calm. Some cats become aggressive or don’t react at all.

How much catnip can a cat have?

Catnip is safe and non-toxic, and your cat cannot overdose on it. Fresh leaves are more potent than dried catnip, and you should always follow the instructions on the packaging.

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