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Advice From Dr. Lindsey: Why Do Cats Like Catnip?

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Authored by: Dr. Lindsey, DVM

Anyone who has ever owned a cat knows how crazy they can be for catnip. Catnip is also in so many of their toys, treats, or food. But what makes cats like catnip so much?

Catnip is an herb and is from the mint family. It’s from the plant Nepeta cataria. That plant contains an organic compound called nepetalactone which gives it its distinct smell that cats love. Some say that the nepetalactone acts like a pheromone for cats. The compound is found in the leaves and stems of the plant. Catnip grows in the wild, but people also will grow it in their gardens. It originally started in Asia and Europe but is now grown all over the world.

Cats can vary greatly on how they react to catnip. Some become very relaxed, loving, and playful while others may become aggressive or hyperactive. The behaviors from the catnip are short-lived, usually about 10-20 minutes. If catnip is used too frequently, it will have a reduced effect. Catnip is not addictive to cats, and they don’t overdose on it. Because catnip can lose its potency over time, it’s best to store in a cool, dry place.

Some cats don’t respond to catnip at all. Usually, young kittens and older cats may have decreased or no response to catnip. Researchers have said that cats must carry a genetically inherited trait in order to respond to catnip which about 30% of cats don’t have.


Dr. Lindsey graduated from Colorado State University in 2009 and works in general practice, shelter medicine, and more recently as a civilian contractor veterinarian for the Army. She is also certified in acupuncture and resides in Palm Springs, CA.