I am a cat parent and trained my indoor rescue kitten to enjoy walking on a leash.
How Does Catnip Work?
Cats love catnip—they drool, kick, flip, hallucinate, freak out . . . and come back for more. Whether it is inhaled, eaten, or rubbed on, cats find a way to enjoy catnip. But what is catnip, and how does it work?
What Is Catnip?
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is native to Europe and is considered a widely grown weed in North America. Catnip is of the mint family. It has small, "tooth-edged" leaves and grows white flowers. It's the chemical nepetalactone in this perennial herb's leaves, stems, and seedpods that is responsible for creating that feeling of "ecstasy" most cats experience.
Does Catnip Get Cats "High"?
When a cat sniffs nepetalactone (from live plants, dried, or oil)—be it in the roots or the leaves of the plant, the cat gets "high." This reaction is likened to other hallucinogenic or psychedelic drug effects in humans. A simple sniff allows nepetalactone to bind to neurotransmitters and relay signals to the brain. This, in turn, stimulates the olfactory regions, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus in the brain:
- The olfactory system affects sense of smell.
- The amygdala in cats is the emotional processing center.
- The hypothalamus stimulates the "attack instinct" in cats.
What About Pheromones?
It is also hypothesized that the chemical, nepetalactone, mimics feline pheromones and binds to receptors (olfactory epithelium) in the cat's nasal passages.
Are All Cats Affected?
It is thought that over half of cats (70–80%) are sensitive to the herb, but behavior changes can only be observed in kittens that are older (6+ months of age). It's noted that sometimes intact males can get aggressive on catnip.
How Do Cats Act When They Are on It?
Cats are affected for roughly 10 minutes, depending on load and uptake (e.g., if the catnip is "inhaled" or ingested). If a cat ingests the herb, it will act more as a sedative. After the effects wear off, cats often return for more. An affected cat may exhibit the following behaviors and symptoms:
- Chasing random objects
Cats are thought to inherit their sensitivity to catnip—that means large cat species (like tigers and lions) may show sensitivity as well.
Can Cats Overdose on Catnip?
Catnip is VERY safe. No ill effects have been documented. It's not addictive and harmful. If too much is ingested, vomiting and diarrhea may occur. Chewing and rubbing on the herb releases more of the chemical compounds, thus redosing your cat. Tolerance can actually be built up to catnip if cats are exposed often.
Some cats only exhibit a passive response to catnip—they calm down and sit in a sternal posture, so many cats may actually be affected by catnip much more than we think.
How to Use It
Catnip is best acquired from a reputable source—go for organic and know the source. Home grown is even better.
Catnip can be administered in toys, in spare socks, sprinkled on cat posts, sprinkled near food, sprayed, rubbed on objects, etc. It is messy, so it's best administered contained. I generally put 1/2 tsp of fresh, dried catnip in a toy and let my cat have at it!
How Often Can You Give Catnip?
Catnip should only be given as an occasional treat. Catnip should not be given more than once a day maximum. It's better to give it infrequently—like once a week. You can store or freeze catnip to keep it fresh.
Cats on Catnip
Facts About the Herb
- It repels mosquitos and aphids.
- It behaves like valerian root in humans.
- It affects over half of cats.
- A cat's reactivity is inherited.
- It has a huge margin of safety in cats.
Tips for Growing Your Own
It's recommended that you grow catnip in an area that your cats can roll on it without damaging other plants (if your cats are outdoor cats). If you have indoor cats, consider growing it on a tray or in a pot or several pots that you can move around and rotate.
Tips for Growing
- Plant in spring or fall (use seeds or mature plants); seeds sprout in several weeks from seed. Mature plants reach 3–4 feet.
- Fill pots with premium potting mix.
- Plant the plants in full sun or partial shade.
- Soil pH should be between 6.1 and 7.8.
- Water regularly but do not overwater.
Catnip tends to grow well throughout the year until winter—it will die back and reappear in spring. You can place bamboo dowels within the catnip so that the cats can't roll into it and smash it. Keep in mind that catnip is invasive, so plant responsibly and enjoy!
How to Grow Organic Catnip
- How to Grow and Care for Catnip Plants
Catnip is a favorite of cats, of course, but it also makes a nice ground cover if you choose the right type. Just don't let it grow out of control.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2019 Layne Holmes
How Does Your Cat Act?
Sharon Martin from Dhaka on April 18, 2019:
Thanks, Layne Holmes for your awesome post.
Layne Holmes (author) from Bend, Oregon on April 17, 2019:
Thanks for the read Larry. It's really entertaining to see cats on it! They simply love it. Super safe, ingestible, whatever. Fun stuff!
Larry Slawson from North Carolina on April 17, 2019:
Never realized this about catnip! Haha. Very interesting! Thank you for sharing!
Layne Holmes (author) from Bend, Oregon on April 17, 2019:
Catnips is great! I've only seen fun things happen although my current young cat (1 year and a few months) had a bad time on it so we won't be giving it to her. She's usually hyper and very hallucinatory normally, so I think it pushed her over the edge. It made her very needy and scared.
Liz Westwood from UK on April 17, 2019:
I had never heard of catnip before. This is an informative article.