If you’ve seen a cat on catnip, you know how extreme the response can be. A normally calm, reserved cat might suddenly become excited and playful. Your cat might roll around on the ground, rub up against the plant, or try to eat some. A toy your cat used to ignore becomes a new favorite with a little added catnip.
Or maybe nothing will happen.
Catnip reactions are common in cats, but they aren’t universal. In fact, around 30% of cats don’t react to catnip at all. Read on to learn more!
What Is Catnip?
Catnip doesn’t look like much at a glance. It’s a small plant with squarish stems covered in slightly fuzzy leaves. Each stem might have a clump of tiny purplish flowers at the top. Catnip is actually a species of mint, so if you bite into a leaf, you’ll recognize the taste. (And yes, it’s perfectly safe for humans to eat.) But as the name suggests, it’s not famous for its flavor—it’s famous because of the reaction many cats have to it.
How Catnip Works
You might be wondering why catnip makes cats go crazy when spearmint or peppermint barely register. That’s because catnip produces a chemical compound as part of its oil known as nepetalactone. Cats have a powerful sense of smell, and the slightest whiff of catnip will break down all sorts of compounds that we can’t smell, including nepetalactone. For whatever reason, when that hits feline scent receptors, it can trigger a huge burst of brain activity. The smell of catnip triggers receptors in the brain that make your cat feel happy and excited—and once your cat has a whiff, it will go crazy for more.
The “Catnip High” doesn’t last forever, though. Within ten minutes or so, the scent of catnip starts to lose its effectiveness. That means that the catnip craze tends to be short. Once your cat has gotten its fill, it will take at least a few hours before interest starts growing again.
Why Some Cats Don’t React
If your cat gives a new toy a sniff and walks away, you’re not alone. Not all cats react to catnip. Age, exposure, and genetics all play a role. The most common reason for cats to be uninterested in catnip is genetic. Although researchers haven’t found the exact gene that lets your cat smell catnip, about a third of cats are completely uninterested in the plant. Whatever quirk makes brain receptors fire at the smell just doesn’t work on them.
Age is another big factor. Kittens don’t start responding to catnip scents until they are around six months of age. And the response to catnip seems to fade with age, too—so your senior kitty might one day grow out of it.
Finally, constant exposure to catnip might oversaturate your cat’s nose so that new catnip scents aren’t interesting anymore. If your cat used to be interested in catnip but has stopped responding over time, taking it out of the house for a few months might renew interest.
Alternatives to Catnip
Cats might have a famous love affair with catnip, but it’s not the only plant that might get yours excited. In fact, there are quite a few alternatives out there. Another plant to try is called silvervine. Of cats that don’t respond to catnip, about 75% will respond to silvervine. A plant called Tatarian Honeysuckle gets a response from about a third of catnip-immune cats.
Catnip and cats might be a match made in heaven—but not always. It’s perfectly normal for some cats not to respond to catnip. About a third of cats just don’t have the gene, and others might be too old, too young, or too overstimulated to keep playing. So if your cat does get the zoomies whenever you bring home a new catnip toy, be thankful—you get to experience a fun cat trait that some owners miss.