It’s no secret, cats LOVE catnip. But how does it work?
Terpenes are a class of organic compounds that include beta-carotene, squalene, familiar scents like pinene and limonene, and a blend that produces “a blissful state” for your kitty. Nepatalactone is the terpene in catnip that makes your little house lion temporarily go bonkers. Two-thirds of adult cats get visibly silly on catnip, while it’s believed that the remaining third are just better at hiding it. Catnip works by nepetalactone molecules making their way into your kitty’s olfactory receptors, which causes a release of endorphins and triggers the brain to go into complete doofus time.
Same in cats as in humans, endorphins act as natural opiates and connect to the same receptors as morphine would. However, the endorphin rush from catnip hasn’t been shown to cause addiction or withdrawl symptoms in cats; the feline brain is able to cut themselves off after about 5-15 minutes of exposure. After this, they develop a temporary tolerance to the compound that typically lasts a few hours.
Catnip isn’t the only plant that can get your kitty feeling happy. Studies have shown that an even higher percentage of cats respond euphorically to silver vine than catnip, while about half will respond to Tatarian honeysuckle and valerian root.
If you’re hesitant to give your cat catnip out of concerns for how safe or ethical it is, science says not to worry about it. Years upon years of use have shown the plant and all active compounds to be safe, so unless a day comes when the understanding of this changes, it’s perfectly safe to let your kitty take occasional romps in the catnip. It can even be a big benefit to them; it can encourage them to exercise, it can help them relax, and it can also be used as a training tool!