The Catnip Response

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a plant native to North America. Fresh leaves of the catnip plant have a mint-like scent, and dried leaves smell like alfalfa. With the exception of tigers and bobcats, all other members of the cat family have a peculiar reaction to contact with this plant. The catnip response includes initial investigation, oral contact, grasping and kicking, and abandonment of the catnip source. It lasts an average of about 6 minutes but is most intense for 2 to 3 minutes. Male and female cats of reproductive age are more sensitive to catnip than are very young or old cats.

The mechanism of catnip’s action is not clearly understood. Elements of the catnip response appear at first to be sexual in nature but may actually be more closely related to predatory patterns. At the very least, the catnip responding cat seems to find the experience pleasurable. Catnip is not toxic to pets and is commonly incorporated into cat toys. It may be applied to the surface of scratch posts to attract a cat’s interest. Catnip may be grown in indoor gardens, providing a fresh supply and distracting cats from chewing ornamental house plants. Some cats are eager when catnip is offered and seem to revel in its effects while other cats appear to avoid it, despite prior displays of catnip sensitivity. Sensitivity to catnip is inherited as a dominant autosomal gene and a minority of cats may not inherit catnip sensitivity.

© Stefanie Schwartz 2011