There are very few things in life that cats love more than catnip. Maybe their scratching posts or maybe a laser pointer, but all in all, if cats had to choose, we suspect the species as a whole would pick catnip over everything else... even their humans. If you've ever watched a cat, let's say, enjoy the effects of catnip, then you know just how wild it can get. But despite the hilarious spectacle, you might still be wondering: What is catnip and what does it really do to cats?
"Catnip targets the happy center in your cat's brain," Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM and veterinary consultant for DogLab.com, exclusively tells Parade. "When you give your cat some catnip, it will help them be happy."
But "happy" may just be an understatement. Watching a cat delight in catnip can appear—to the naked human eye—much more than a mood-booster. In fact, some cat-lovers even liken catnip to drugs for cats, claiming it gets cats high. But is that the truth?
Parade consulted Dr. Ochoa and other veterinarians and cat experts to break down catnip—what it is, how it works, and why it makes cats seemingly crazy. Plus, is it safe for cats and if so, are there health benefits to giving your cat catnip?
What Is Catnip?
Catnip is a naturally-occurring perennial herb that is native to Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, and China. From the mint family, it's more formally known as Nepeta cataria. Catnip contains an active ingredient called nepetalactone, an essential oil that stimulates the olfactory bulb of the brain. While catnip also has an impact on other kinds of animals—in gardens, it can attract butterflies, deter deer, and repel mosquitoes—it's really known for its psychological effect on cats and many humans actually choose to give their cats catnip voluntarily due to the emotional response cats seem to have.
Though most cats react to catnip, it's totally normal if your cat does not. According to the Humane Society, anywhere from one-third to half of cats are unaffected by catnip and don't react at all.
Related: Why Do Cats Purr?
What Does Catnip Do to Cats?
It's not so much the catnip itself as the nepetalactone that affects most cats, inducing an emotional response. Dr. Matthew McCarthy, founder of Juniper Valley Animal Hospital in Queens, NY, explains how catnip works.
"The active ingredient in catnip is an essential oil called nepetalactone, which—when inhaled—produces a euphoric or hallucinogenic reaction (AKA the 'catnip effect') in the majority—about 3 out of 4—cats," Dr. McCarthy says. "There does seem to a genetic reason for this and while the exact mechanism is not actually known, it is thought to activate specific receptors that initiate the unique response."
However, catnip does not have an effect on cats if it is digested. In order for cats to get a "high" from catnip, they have to inhale it.
"It should be noted that this response is only triggered through olefactory exposure (i.e when inhaled) and does not occur if cats eat the plant," Dr. McCarthy adds. "The catnip effect typically occurs in four stages."
According to Dr. McCarthy, the four stages include:
- Licking and chewing with head shaking
- Chin and cheek rubbing
- Head overrolling and body rubbing
Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM, CVJ, adds, "Cats have several behaviors they may exhibit: rolling around, rubbing on the catnip, purring, [while] some cats flip out and have dilated eyes. They might meow and growl and not know what mood they want to be in. Some cats might race around in frenzied hyperactivity, some cats might become aggressive, some cats will just lay around and zone out."
As any cat-owner understands, it can be quite a sight to behold! But the catnip-response isn't just split evenly into two categories; yes, some cats react euphorically and some do not react at all, but other cats may actually have a negative reaction when given catnip.
"While the majority of cats do seem to have the happier euphoric experience, some cats do seem to get an aroused response—quite the opposite of our intentions in giving them the herb," Dr. McCarthy says. "Their pupils dilate so their eyes look bigger, they act tense, have a distressed cry, twitch their back, and may swat at or bite whoever comes close. I call this 'the' angry drunk effect' and it probably goes back to the hallucinogenic effects of catnip—a so-called 'bad trip.' If this is the case, it’s best to avoid giving your cat any catnip as the aggression that can occur during these episodes can be redirected to the nearest human or other cat and can lead to some serious injuries."
How Long Does Catnip Last?
While catnip definitely has an interesting effect on many cats when it is inhaled, it's a pretty fleeting reaction. All in all, a cat's response to catnip usually doesn't last more than a few minutes.
Dr. McCarthy adds, "In general, the entire sequence of events lasts about five to 15 minutes."
It's also worth noting that, for young kittens, the effects of catnip don't last very long at all. In fact, they don't even work. Catnip does not affect kittens ages four to six months old. Once their brains mature—depending on their genetics, of course—then a cat may be triggered by catnip.
Related: 50 Funny Cat Puns
Is Catnip a Drug for Cats?
Many people posit that catnip is kind of like a drug for cats—that it gets them high. This isn't exactly wrong. After all, catnip has been proven to stimulate the olfactory bulb of the brain, amygdala, and cats' pituitary glands. The stimulation of each area is neurological and produces a hallucinogenic reaction; therefore, can certainly be considered a high.
"Catnip contains a mild hallucinogen," Dr. Michelle Burch, DVM from Paramount Pet Health, explains. "The hallucinogen will cause cats to begin rubbing, rolling, relaxing, and other happy actions. [Though] not all cats will respond to the hallucinogen in catnip due to inherited genetics."
However, catnip isn't technically a drug. It's an herb and its internal essential oil is what produces a response in cats. When it comes to cats inhaling catnip, dosage or concentration isn't a factor. As long as it contains enough nepetalactone, that nepetalactone has the capability of inducing an endorphin response. That being said, because concentrations and dosages don't matter in catnip, cats cannot suffer from an overdose. Cats are more likely to feel nauseous, however, after ingesting too much catnip. Still, it isn't fatal.
Related: 50 Cat Jokes
Can a Cat Eat Catnip and Is It Bad for Cats?
Generally, catnip is not harmful to cats. It can be either inhaled (that's the only way for cats to get that 'high' reaction) or digested as a catnip treat. Either way, catnip isn't harmful to cats; however, with ingesting it as a snack, cat-owners should be careful not to over-feed their cats catnip.
As Dr. Wooten explains, "If cats smell catnip, it tends to bind to receptors in the brain that trigger 'happy excitement.' If cats eat catnip, it tends to do the opposite and causes cats to be chill."
However, cat-owners should be wary of feeding their cats too much catnip orally. If a cat ingests too much catnip, it can cause quite the tummy-ache.
"Studies have shown that sniffing catnip causes excitement, often making cats go 'nuts,' while eating the catnip tends to do the opposite, mellowing them out or even sending them to sleep," Ryan Body, co-founder of the non-profit crowdfunding organization Free Animal Doctor, adds. "Catnip won’t hurt your cat, though eating a lot can make them nauseous, so do not over do it (good advice for us people too!)."
Does a Cat Get High on Catnip?
The easiest way to explain a cat's psychological reaction to catnip is to describe it as the cat getting high. According to cats' general behavior after inhaling catnip, "high" seems to be the most relevant thing to liken it to. However, while catnip is kind of like a drug to cats, it's technically not in that cats fatally overdose after inhaling it. Also, cats don't get "high" in different ways each time they react to it. Meaning, the way your cat responds to catnip the first time is likely how they'll continue to respond each time.
"Catnip produces a very definite, repeatable response. A cat will pretty much do the exact same thing every time it smells it," veterinarian Jeff Grognet told Vox. "The cat isn't rubbing their face and rolling in the catnip to get more of it (as I'd assumed), but simply because getting high by inhaling the catnip compels them to do so."
What Are the Benefits of Catnip for Cats?
Though it's often thought of as a funny thing, catnip actually can be beneficial to cats. Sure, it can cause your cat to act in seriously weird—and hilarious—ways, but in a similar way to how small doses of melatonin can sometimes calm dogs' anxiety, catnip can also help cats in this way.
One benefit of catnip is that it acts as a sedative. If your cat is experiencing any kind of anxiety, stress, or depression, catnip may be able to help calm them down temporarily. This can help cat-owners in a few ways; five to 15 minutes of a calmer kitty may make it easier to drive them to the vet, coax them into the tub, or even calm they down around strangers.
Another benefit of catnip is that it can stave off boredom. Sure, its effects don't exactly lass long, but some cats may experience boredom frequently, which can cause them to engage in destructive behaviors (ie. tearing up furniture or curtains). Disseminating catnip to your cat can help stimulate them enough to avoid these destructive behaviors, but even more importantly, it can be used to help train cats in what behavior is right and what behavior is wrong.
Additionally, catnip is also thought to alleviate some stomach pain and even bloat in cats.
If your cat does not respond to catnip (or doesn't respond well), Dr. McCarthy adds that there are a few alternatives that elicit similar responses.
"Catnip is great for adding to the environmental enrichment that cats need and can also be a great aid for training cats. However, if your cat is one of those that seems immune to its (good) effects, there are alternatives that may work for many of these non-responders. Tatarian honeysuckle, silvervine, and cat thyme are some of the plants that we have seen used by our patients to good effect," Dr. McCarthy says.
Next up, why do cats knead?