The scent of the European perennial herb known biologically as Nepeta Cataria can produce the wildest of reactions from all kinds of members of the cat family, from domestic pets through to lions, but what is it that causes such a lively reaction?

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As the lady on the advert once said - here's the science bit....

What is catnip?

Catnip is a member of the mint family, and produces small white or lilac flowers which can be used for herbal tea. They contain a significant number of calming properties, and are also effective as a mosquito repellent. 

But for cats, the smell produces a very different reaction - and the interesting thing is, it is only the smell that does it.

 

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Aug 16, 2017 at 12:00am PDT

Actually ingesting catnip will have no effect on a cat whatsoever - but the smell is known to drive them wild.

How does catnip work?

The scent molecules are picked up by an organ in the roof of the cat's mouth known as the Vomeronasal Organ, which is a scent detector they also use for identifying territorial and environmental smells.

The physical reaction this causes is a type of frown, with a curled lip and partially opened mouth, known as the Flehmen Response.

 

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Oct 31, 2015 at 4:24pm PDT

Some researchers have likened the effect of catnip to being like that of LSD on humans, producing an almost "trippy" effect.

Why?

Cats collect the aroma from the catnip in their mouth, then use their tongue to flick the scent up to the Vomeronasal organ.

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Research has shown young kittens tend not to respond at all, but as they grow older they become more likely to respond. It is an inherited response.

All importantly, despite the lively reactions it can provoke, catnip is safe for cats - the most likely side-effect of overindulgence is vomiting or diarrhoea, which will have no more lasting effect than putting the cat off doing the same thing again.