The Chemistry of Catnip


  • Catnip is a plant that is part of the mint family, and cats go wild for it. I chose this topic because cats are a big part of my life. Catnip is a great way to engage my cats and their natural instincts through catnip-filled toys or just regular catnip. In my family’s garden we have a patch catmint, and I had always believed that this was different than catnip. However, while researching the chemistry of catnip, I found out that catmint and catnip are in fact the same plant!Composition of ...
    • Nepetalactone
      • C10H14

Main Chemicals, Compounds, Components

    • Nepetalactone is the main chemical in catnip that causes cats to react to it. It is a volatile oil, and this means it is an oil that is often used in essential oils that comes from plants. This chemical is found in the leaves and stem of the catnip plant, and it binds to the olfactory receptors in cat noses.
    • The olfactory bulb is the part of the brain that plays the largest role in cats’ reactions to catnip. It processes information about smells and is connected with sensors in the nasal passage. The olfactory bulb is located in the front of the brain and can only be found in the brains of vertebrates.

Chemistry's Role

When cats sniff catnip, nepetalactone binds to sensors in the nasal passage. These sensors then trigger the olfactory bulb in the brain. This sends signals to the amygdala and the hypothalamus, who both manage emotions. This process causes cats to respond like they would to a sex pheromone.

Background Research

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a part of the mint family; hence its other name, catmint. Since the 1700s people have known that catnip has a strong effect on cats. This plant not only affects domestic cats, it also affects wild cats, such as the lion. However, not every cat responds to catnip. Whether or not a cat reacts to catnip is hereditary. This response is linked to an autosomal dominant gene, meaning a cat needs to only inherit this gene from one parent to be affected by catnip. When cats sniff catnip, their common reactions include face rubbing, rolling, and sometimes meowing. Cats can also ingest catnip. Humans sometimes uses catnip. It can be used in tea to aid sleep, rubbed on joints to help with arthritis, and to help respiratory infections. However, people should not use catnip excessively because it impairs the body’s ability to get rid of lithium.


    • Both wild and domestic cats like catnip
    • Cats like catnip because of the nepetalactone
    • Catnip can also be used to help humans

    • When cats smell catnip, it triggers the happy receptors in the cat’s brain
    • If cats ingest catnip, it will make them mellow
    • Is a part of the mint family
    • The response to catnip is hereditary

    • Describes how and why catnip affects cats

    • Gives Nepatalactone’s properties and chemical composition

    • Goes into detail what catnip does to cats’ brains when they sniff it

    • Explains catnips’ effects on humans
    • How to use catnip safely

    • Defines volatile oil

    • Information about the olfactory bulb

About the Author

Sophie Randak is a junior at Billings Senior High School and is the fourth generation of her family to attend this high school. She is involved in cross country, Key Club, Senior Advocates, and STEM Club. Sophie is very passionate about animals. She volunteers at low-cost spay and neuter clinics and is working on using only products that are cruelty-free. Sophie is also an identical twin. She does not know where she will be attending college, but she hopes to become a physician’s assistant.