The Science Behind How Catnip Seduces Cats

Catnip is good for this. (Photo: Dwight Sipler/Wikimedia Commons)

Not all cats love catnip — about a third of felines won't react to the herbal plant. My cat does, so like any good cat guardian, I planted some a few years ago, so I could ensure a fresh, organic supply for my kitty. It grew beautifully — until one day Josephine found it and went absolutely nuts on it, finally flopping down in it for a nap in the garden box (see below).

If you've watched a cat interact with catnip (or catmint, as it's often called when you buy it in plant form at a nursery), you'll notice they don't really ingest the plant. They'll chew on it, roll on top and nuzzle their faces in it, but they don't consume it in any meaningful quantities.

Though their behavior changes, unlike when we drink a few glasses of wine, it isn't caused by intoxication.

A long-haired black cat in a flower box surrounded by catnip.
My cat Josephine, enjoying fresh catnip in the garden. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

How does catnip work, anyway?

The cat-attraction to catnip is due to terpenes, which are natural chemical compounds. Terpenes give fruits, spices, beer, perfumes and cannabis various odors. For example, the terpene myrcene is found in mango, lemongrass, bay leaves and hops. Lemonene is found in — you guessed it — lemons, but also rosemary, peppermint and pine needles. Catnip contains nepetalactone, an unusual terpene in several ways.

First, as the video below outlines, nepatalactone works for the catnip as chemical defense against aphids, which are tiny, sap-sucking insects. Its mechanism is a bit of trickery: The terpine the catnip produces is actually an aphid sex pheromone. This isn't to attract aphids, obviously — it's to attract aphid predators, like the lacewing fly.

As the host in the video below points out, "It's an awesomely cruel application of the enemy of my enemy is my friend strategy."

A possible cancer connection

In a recently published paper in Nature Chemical Biology, researchers report that they saw for the first time how nepetalactone forms. Understanding this process is important because researchers believe it's similar to a process occurring in cancer-fighting drugs that are derived from plants.

"Catnip is performing unusual and unique chemical processes, and we plan to use these to help us create useful compounds that can be used in treatment of diseases such as cancer. We are also working to understand the evolution of catnip to understand how it came to produce the cat-active chemicals," Dr. Benjamin Lichman, who contributed to the research, told