Known scientifically as Nepeta cataria, catnip, or catmint, is a flowering plant in the mint family. Once cats get a whiff of catnip, whilst some cats become hyperactive or aggressive, most cats may begin to lick, eat, roll, and rub their cheeks on it to release a volatile oil, Nepetalactone. This chemical compound is thought to mimic feline pheromones and triggers a state of feline ecstasy.
The response occurs through the olfactory system. Nepetalactone stimulates activity in several areas of the brain, including the olfactory bulb and the amygdala, which regulate emotions.
However, according to PetMD, sensitivity to catnip is an inherited trait, and it will not emerge until several months old and about 50 per cent of cats seem to be affected by catnip.
It can also be used as a training aid. Rub catnip onto your cats' scratching post to pique their interest, or sprinkle it in their bed or carrier to encourage them to enter, thereby creating a positive association. When playtime is over, hide toys in a ziplock bag or jar and marinate them in catnip, so as to keep the toys novel and fun.
Though intense, that ecstasy is usually short-lived, lasting about 10 minutes for most cats and then there will be a refractory period of about two hours, after which they become susceptible to catnip's allure again.