Have you ever seen a cat play with a toy filled with catnip? If you have, you’ve probably seen some really funny feline antics.

Catnip is a fragrant plant from the mint family. Its scientific name is Nepeta cataria, and it’s sometimes called “catmint” or “catswort.”

Native to Africa, Europe and Asia, catnip can now be found all over North America, too. There are more than 250 species of catnip around the world today.

Catnip grows two to three feet tall and has sturdy stems with heart-shaped leaves. The tips of the plant’s stems will sprout blue, white, pink or purple flowers.

Although catnip can have its effect when grown as a fresh plant, most catnip toys contain catnip that has been dried and ground into tiny pieces.

The leaves and stems of the catnip plant contain an oil called “nepetalactone.” When cats smell nepetalactone, it stimulates special receptors that sense chemicals called “pheromones.”

The result is a kind of chemical reaction that gives the cat a sense of euphoria or overwhelming happiness. The effect has been compared to that of a hallucinogenic drug on humans.

When cats smell catnip, they will often paw at it, rub it, roll over it, lick it and even chew it. Cats who have particularly strong reactions to catnip may also get frisky, meow, growl, purr, drool and generally act crazy for several minutes!

After a few minutes, though, the effect of the catnip wears off, and cats will ignore it. After about two hours, cats may encounter catnip again and have the same reaction.

Not all cats respond this way to catnip, though. Experts estimate about 50 to 75 percent of cats are affected by catnip. Young kittens and older cats are less likely to be affected.

Whether a cat reacts to catnip is believed to be hereditary, which means cats inherit this trait from their parents. For example, most Australian cats aren’t affected by catnip.

Catnip has been shown to affect more than just house cats. Big cats, such as lions, tigers and leopards, react similarly to house cats when exposed to catnip.

Nepetalactone drives some cats crazy, but it can also drive mosquitoes, flies, cockroaches and termites away. Researchers have found that nepetalactone by itself is 10 times more effective than DEET, the ingredient in most insect repellents. Unfortunately, nepetalactone loses its repellent qualities when applied to the skin.

Catnip also has a long history of use by humans as a medicine. When consumed as a tea or infusion, it has soothing and numbing effects that act like a mild sedative. Humans have also used it from time to time to treat nausea, headaches and toothaches.


58 Join the Discussion

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  1. My cat used to have a rainbow toy that was filled with catnip. She LOVED IT!!!!! I used to hold it up for her, and afterwards my hands smelled like catnip! Catnip smells kinda strange…:)

    • Thanks for hanging out in Wonderopolis today, :D! Thanks also for sharing this story about your cat! :-)

    • We bet your grandma’s cat has a lot of fun playing with you, Jusin! Cats don’t need catnip to be great pets! :-)

  2. My cat has this ball toy we put catnip in. I threw it, and my cat jumped up and caught it and ate the catnip!!!


  3. Wow!!! I really liked this wonder!! Probably because cats are my all time favorite animals!!!! I have 2 cats and 1 doesn’t care for catnip and the other can get frisky!!! Maybe because he’s younger!! I never really thought about where cat nip comes from! My cat has a cat nip shaped mouse toy.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your personal connection to this Wonder about catnip, Anne! We liked learning a little more about your two cats, too! :-)

  4. I have two cats and they LOVE catnip! I never knew there was catnip for big cats and that the cats like the catnip. Why don’t lions like catnip is what I wonder?

    • That’s a GREAT question, Team McNeil 7! We think there are some lions out there who might like catnip, it’s just that Joseph (the lion in the video for this Wonder) didn’t care much for it. It was fun watching the reactions of all those different big cats to catnip, wasn’t it? :-)

    • We think you’re right about that, Madison! We really liked learning about catnip, and we’re glad you did, too! :-)

  5. Hello Wonderopolis!
    I learned a bunch about this topic! I own two cats, so I can really relate to this topic. I learned that the scientific name for catnip is Nepeta Cataria. I also learned that the leaves of catnip produce an oil called Nepetalactone. WOW, those are big names for plants! I still wonder if any other type of animal likes catnip? Thanks so much for reading my comment!
    ~*BYE*~ :o) :) :)

    • You’re right about the scientific name for catnip being a BIG word, Team McNeil #16! We’re not sure if any other animals like catnip, but we know the BIG cats in the video for this Wonder sure did (except for Joseph the lion!)! Thanks for sharing your comment with us today…it ROCKED! :-)

  6. Hi:3

    I never knew that catnip was a type of mint plant that is sometimes call catmint and catworts. It’s a type of mint that felines love. I also know as nepeta cataria and it has pheromones so all cats like it (except for Joseph the lion). Catnip can grow up to two to three feet tall! What I know: Catnip is a type of plant; cats like to eat it; it’s a short plant; you can buy catnip and when people sell catnip they cut the catnip.

    thanks for making us

    • We’re glad you WONDERed about catnip today, Team Unger #2! Thank you for sharing all the AWESOME things you learned about it! We WONDER why Joseph the lion didn’t care much for the catnip? :-)

  7. My cat loves catnip. We bought her a solid ball of catnip, she licks it crazily! It’s funny, I love my cat and she loves catnip!

    • You sound like an AMAZING pet owner, Katie! Thanks for sharing your personal connection to this Wonder of the Day®! Your cat is SUPER lucky to have someone like you who loves and takes care of her! :-)

    • Hi, Chandler! Thanks so much for letting us know what you thought about the video for this Wonder of the Day®! We appreciate your opinion and your comment! :-)

  8. I love this wonder. My cat Roo-Roo’s favorite toy was catnip. You would think it would be adorable, but you can’t see it now because
    he passed away. :-( He was a good cat and I miss him very much. I like this video. :-)

    • We’re so very sorry for the loss you feel for Roo-Roo, Julie. :-( It can be hard when we lose pets…they are truly a special part of our families! It helps to talk about our feelings with a grown-up when we feel sad about a pet passing away. We hope you will do that if you feel you need to! We think you have a super big heart and are a WONDERfully caring Wonder Friend. We appreciate you!

  9. My cats Thunder and Lightning love catnip, and I make lots of nip toys for them. We have a baggie full of dried catnip and a live plant. Even when the catnip smell is gone from the toys they still love them. (this is probably because they actually have noses 5x better than ours and I couldn’t smell it.) I like catnip smell a lot! This was a great wonder!

    • WOW, how cool, Sarah! Thanks for sharing your cool story about Thunder and Lightening! They sound like really great pets– and part of the family! :)

    • Hey there Ben! We’re glad you’re WONDERing with us today! We Wonder which movie you’re talking about? The Wonder video perhaps…? :)

  10. I sewed a toy for my cat and stuffed it with cat nip she went nuts and wouldn’t give it up and didn’t want to share with my other cat so I had to make another one so they could get along it was funny. :D

    • WOW, what a cool project, Ella! It sounds like you are a very creative pet owner! We bet your cat went head over heels for the toy you made, and it was so generous of you to make another one for your other cat! What a cool activity! Thank you for sharing your comment! :)

  11. Sabre to puma (I think), is the one who made me laugh the most! Keep up those wonders, and, if you haven’t done this one before, why do pandas love bamboo?

  12. I always wondered why cats love catnip so much! I wonder how cats will show their feelings. Can you please answer that wonder? Thanks!

    • HOORAY, we are so glad you have been WONDERing with us, Emma, and you’ve got some great Wonders of your own, too! It’s cool to think about how our pets show their feelings… especially when they want to cuddle with us! Thanks for visiting us today! :)

    • Great question, Lahna! Some older cats don’t like catnip as much as younger ones, but we learned that the scent makes kitties extra happy! We Wonder if there is an awesome scent that you like to smell? :)

  13. I’m afraid of what might happen if I give my cat catnip. You mentioned that it is similar to hallucinogens in humans and I don’t want to drug my cat because it might hurt her or make her go crazy like the people on COPS tv show. I don’t know, but thank you for your post!! I appreciate this wonder of the day, just as I have enjoyed it!!!!!!!

    • Great food for thought, Matt! We are so glad that you enjoyed this Wonder and found a way to apply it to YOUR life! Have a WONDERful day! :)

    • Thanks for WONDERing with us, Genevieve V.! Yes, catnip is safe for cats. We’re sure it’s fun to watch your grandma’s cat go silly over catnip. The kitties around Wonderopolis just LOVE rolling around in it! ;)

  14. My cats LOVE catnip! I didn’t know a smell can cause so much happiness. I loved the video to! I learned a lot from this WONDER!

  15. i have catnip bubbles but there’s no affect on both of my cats. one is a stray. the other is a fluffy fat cat.

    • Hello, sabstian nevelous! We are glad you enjoyed this WONDER. We love when we are learning and having fun at the same time! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Why do cats love catnip?
  • Are there any other uses for catnip?
  • What effect does catnip have on humans?

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Try It Out

Do you have a cat? What about your friends or family members? Or is there an animal shelter nearby that cares for cats?

If you want to do something special for a cat, make one of the special catnip treats below. You might be surprised by how much it’s appreciated!

If you don’t have any catnip growing wild around your house or you don’t want to try to grow your own, you can find dried catnip at most pet stores!


Still Wondering

Want to learn more about some really big cats? Check out National Geographic’s Russia’s Tigers video.


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