Why cats behave the way they do around catnips

“Cat getting high from catnip,” by Aaron Rift. YouTube, 20 April 2009. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvsFJQt8MIM (accessed on 4 Apr 2013)


The above video shows how a cat react after being exposed to a toy sprayed with catnip. The reactions shown by the cat in the video are typical of cats when presented with catnips. Cats tend to show several behaviours such as “ (1) sniffing, (2) licking and chewing with head shaking, (3) chin and cheek rubbing, and (4) head-over rolling and body rubbing” (Todd, 1962). Why do cats behave like this, and why is it that such behaviours are not present in every cat?

Catnip plant, also known as Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family of aromatic herbs and contains chemicals like volatile oils which are responsible for aforementioned behaviours through their odour (Palen & Goddard, 1966). The triggered behaviours occur “randomly and intermittently” (Hart & Leedy, 1985). According to a study done by Todd in 1962, the elicited responses are hereditary. Only cats with autosomal dominant gene, which account for approximately 70 to 80% of cats, will exhibit these behaviours.

There are also concerns that catnips will increase the aggression level of cats, especially towards rats. However, this has been proven to be false in a research done by Palen and Goddard (1966). Experimental results showed that there is no increased aggression in cats towards rats or stuffed objects of similar sizes as the cat itself after exposure to catnips. One surprising observation is that cats actually paid more notice to the stuffed objects while showing less attention to rats instead. The attention shown to the objects were similar to those shown to male cats by female cats that are in heat.



Hart, B. L. & Leedy, M. G. (1985). Analysis of the Catnip Reaction: Mediation by Olfactory System, Not Vomeronsal Organ. Behavioral and Neural Biology, 44, 38-46.

Palen, G. F. & Goddard, G. V. (1066). Catnip and oestrous behaviour in the cat. Animal Behaviour, 14, 372-377.

Todd, N. B. (1962). Inheritance of the catnip response in domestic cats. Journal of Heredity, 53(2), 54-56.