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Why Does My Cat Like Rolling in Catnip? 4 Possible Reasons

Cassidy Sutton

By Cassidy Sutton

cat with fresh catnip

All cats react differently to catnip, but most cats will shamelessly roll in the plant to their heart’s desire. We understand getting the zoomies, munchies, or feeling couch-locked for a few minutes, but rolling in the plant? What gives?

As silly as it looks, cats have their reasons for this crazy behavior, and it’s not because they’re high (although that does play a part). Let’s start with understanding how catnip works.


A Closer Look at Catnip

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is an herb native to Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and parts of China. It belongs to the mint family Lamiaceae, plants known for their highly aromatic stems, leaves, and flowers.

What makes these plants so potent is the volatile oils. Volatile oils contain chemical compounds that give these plants their scent and protect them from harmful insects and diseases.

What makes these plants so potent is the volatile oils. Volatile oils contain chemical compounds that give these plants their scent and protect them from harmful insects and diseases.

Each plant has its volatile oils. Nepetalactone, one of catnip’s volatile oils, binds to olfactory receptors inside a cat’s nasal cavity when it eats or sniffs the plant. When Nepatalactone reaches the brain, your cat feels on top of the world.

catnip leaves
Image Credit: lwccts, Pixabay

The 4 Reasons Why Cats Like Rolling in Catnip

1. Mimics Sexual Behavior

With catnip, the Nepelactone mimics a sexual pheromone that tells your cat it’s time to breed. Female cats in heat will roll on their backs, vocalize, and are generally restless, which is why you often see cats react this way to catnip.

2. Natural Parasite Repellent

Earlier, we mentioned how plants in the Lamiaceae family are very potent. This potency is the plant’s way of defending itself from harmful insects and diseases. Interestingly, catnip can do the same for cats.

Cats transfer iridoids from the plant to their fur anytime they touch catnip, creating a natural mosquito repellent.

tabby cat savoring catnip in the garden
Image Credit: Badon Hill Studio, Shutterstock

3. Cats Have Better Olfactory Senses

Rolling in catnip is a cat’s way of increasing exposure to Nepelactone, thanks to its superior sense of smell. Cats have about 200 million scent receptors all around their bodies.

These receptors can be found on:
  • The tail and base of the tail
  • The side of the head
  • The Lips and chin
  • Near the sex organs
  • Between the front paws

Cats also have an organ in their mouths called the Jacobsen’s organ. This organ helps cats detect “undetectable” odors, like mating pheromones.

When your cat rolls in catnip, the “happiness hormones” travel from all available scent glands on the body to the brain faster.

4. Masks Scent

Cats like to use plants as a natural deodorant. Catnip is especially potent, so it’s perfect for masking a cat’s scent. This is especially true for wild cats who need to hide from prey and predators. Domestic cats don’t need to practice this behavior as much as wild cats, but cats like to stay true to their wild side regardless.


Does It Work for All Cats?

Domestic cats aren’t the only cats that enjoy the catnip high. Wild cats like lions, jaguars, tigers, and bobcats can join in on the fun. That is, as long as they’re old enough.

Kittens won’t develop a sensitivity to Nepatalectone until they reach about 6 months old. Some cats may even need a whole year to develop sensitivity.

Even then, some cats are immune to its effects. Only 50%–70% of cats will ever feel a difference. Scientists believe the notorious catnip high is hereditary. If a cat responds to catnip, the parents likely did too.

Age and genetics aside, all cats can luxuriate in the natural pest repellent and deodorant as much as they want.

How Much Catnip Should I Offer My Cat?

There isn’t a precise measurement for offering catnip to your kitty, but cats don’t need much to experience the euphoric feeling.

Fresh catnip is always more potent than dried catnip, so only offer a few leaves or a couple of clippings at a time. You can even set the clippings in water, and they’ll last for weeks.

With dried catnip, sprinkle a little at a time on a scratcher or cat tree to see how your cat reacts. You can make adjustments based on your observations. We recommend steering clear of catnip oils since these are highly concentrated. Your cat can’t overdose on catnip, but too much can make your kitty sick.

Over time, cats can build up a tolerance if exposed to catnip daily, so it’s best only to offer catnip as a treat.

cat smelling catnip
Image Credit: Kassel95, Pixabay

Catnip Isn’t the Only Option

Catnip is great, but your cat can enjoy other leafy greens with a similar high. It’s unclear if these plants act as a pest repellent, though. Still, your cat can at least chew on a few leaves from time to time.

  • Valerian: Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has been used as a human sedative for centuries. A study showed that 50 out of 100 cats were affected by valerian. The effect was a nice high, followed by sleepiness.
  • Silvervine: Silvervine (Actinidia polygama) offers a euphoric high similar to catnip. In fact, the high may even be stronger than catnip, lasting up to 30 minutes, so offer it in small quantities.
  • Tatarian Honeysuckle: A study showed that some cats preferred Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) over catnip. Unfortunately, some states have outlawed the plant because it’s highly invasive, so you might have trouble finding it.

Our Favorite Cat Toys

Here are a few of our favorite cat toys, each caters to various types of play your cat might like the best. 

Hepper’s Catnip Stick Toy
Hepper Catnip Stick
Hepper_Plush Whale
Hepper Whale Plush
Hepper Furball Set
Contains Catnip
Contains Catnip :
Contains Catnip :
Contains Catnip :
Safe for KIttens
Safe for KIttens:
Safe for KIttens:
Safe for KIttens:
All-Natural :
All-Natural :
All-Natural :
Washable :
Washable :
Washable :


In Conclusion

Catnip has a delightful effect on a cat’s brain. Why shouldn’t it roll around? There are a few reasons why your cat’s rolling in catnip, but it all boils down to one reason- your cat is having a good time.

Watching your cat act like a goofball is downright entertaining. Who knew catnip could be fun for the whole family? So, let your cat act silly and enjoy the herbal celebration!

Featured Image Credit: Anna Hoychuk, Shutterstock

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