Nepeta cataria is the technical term for catnip. We believe that catnip gives off a vapour (nepetalactone) – the molecules of which are detected by receptors in the roof of the cat’s mouth in the Vomeronasal organ (also known as Jacobson's organ).
This organ allows cats to ‘taste’ smells, if that makes sense. So they collect the aromas in their mouth, flick them with their tongue onto that particular organ, and that process creates an effect in the cat.
"A cat can get quite aroused when exposed to catnip, so it’s quite important to be careful when you’re around a cat in that heightened state."
We think the catnip effect in cats is comparable to a psychedelic hallucinogenic LSD-type trip in people. The effects can last for between five and about 15 mins, so it’s actually relatively short-lived. During that time the cat might lay, rub or roll around in the catnip, sniff it, lick it, chew it and even eat it.
A cat can get quite aroused when exposed to catnip, so it’s quite important to be careful when you’re around a cat in that heightened state. If you try to touch them when they’re in that state, and they’re not expecting it, they could react aggressively, so you have to watch out.
It’s generally thought that not all cats react to catnip though – and we also think it’s something that doesn’t tend to have much of an effect on cats until they reach sexual maturity. We think that about a third or so of cats don’t react to it at all. Having said that, often a cat won’t react to a commercial cat toy that contains catnip simply because the toy has been on the shelf for too long, and the catnip isn’t as fresh as it once was.
For more advice on caring for cats, visit Battersea Dogs & Cats Home.