Why do cats flip out on catnip?

I don’t know about you but I get a real kick out of watching my cats flip out on catnip. It’s something that many cat parents don’t understand yet we find the odd event incredibly entertaining. If cats had dealers, they’d buy catnip. It’s true! Irresistible to cats, its mildly stimulant properties can trigger a large range of behaviors that can be collectively described as 'flippy' but also happy. “But what is that stuff? Is it even good for my cat, you wonder.”

Catnip is a perennial plant (Nepeta cataria) belonging to the mint family (aka catmint). Nepatalactone is the active chemical in catnip that causes the response of euphoria, similar to the effect of a hallucinogenic drug but without any additive or harmful effects. It appears to activate the neural elements of play, aggression, sexual behavior and predation in the cat’s brain. Cats exposed to catnip may sniff, roll on the ground or over the catnip, lick and even eat the herb. Here are some interesting facts about catnip that you maybe didn’t know:

  • Catnip has an extraordinary effect on around 80% of cats

  • The catnip response is inherited; 30% of cats lack this gene

  • Kittens and elderly cats don’t typically respond to catnip; young kittens may actually be repelled from it

  • The response lasts about 10-15 minutes and requires about 1-2 hours for the behavior to reset before a cat is capable of reacting to the herb again.

  • Cats react to catnip through inhalation.

  • The volatile oil, nepatalactone, needs to be released in the dried form of the herb before offering it to your cat. Simply rub the dried leaves between your fingers to release it.

  • Cats also use their vomeronasal organ (Jacobson’s organ) to analyze the scent.

  • Inhaled catnip has a stimulating effect whereas ingested catnip has a calming effect.

Catnip is available in many forms – fresh, dried, sprays, in pre-filled toys, rubbed on toys and scratching posts or you can even just place some in a knotted sock. Catnip should only be offered a maximum of two or three times a week. Constant overexposure may cause your cat to lose their ability to respond. If you grow your own catnip you can offer fresh leaves to your cat but please, take heed….


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