What Does Catnip Do To Cats?

What Is Catnip?

Catnip, known officially as nepeta cataria, is an herb in the mint family that, for some reason, can drive your cat crazy.

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It can be bought as an herb or in a toy, both of which can have a different effect for your kitty.

Your cat will either eat, sniff or roll around in catnip and you’ll probably notice the effects immediately. It’s pretty hilarious to sprinkle some herbs on your cat’s toy and watch them get super excited and playful.

But, what exactly does catnip do to cats? And why do they love it so much?

Quick Answer…

One of the chemical compounds in catnip, Nepetalactone, acts as a sort of artificial cat pheromone, resulting in a euphoric “high.” It’s perfectly safe for cats, even with it’s drug-like effects. In short, cats just like the way it makes them feel. They either feel happy and playful or nice and sleepy.

How Does Catnip Affect Cats?

Catnip is a plant in the same family as mint. Though it is grown fresh like any other herb, the catnip you buy for your pets is dried and ground up. If you’re lucky, you can find an actual catnip plant in some fresh herb sections — cats also love plant in its natural state.

Cats are extremely susceptible to the chemical compound Nepetalactone found within catnip. This compound acts as an artificial pheromone that elicits a positive response in a cat’s brain when they smell it. This reaction is what causes the euphoria.

A few common reactions to catnip can include purring, rolling around and even drooling.

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It’s important to note that not all cats even have a reaction to catnip — only about 50% of cats react to it. But for the cats who do feel its effects, there are a few ways they can enjoy it.

Smelling vs Eating

Cats can either smell or eat catnip. They also love to roll in it, but I think that plays into the scent aspect.

It’s more intense for cats when they smell catnip, compared to eating it. The blissful, playful reaction in response to artificial pheromones only happens when a catnip is smelled. This is easier to accomplish if you have some kind of catnip toy I have a few of these, and one of my cats will hold it and rub her face all over the toy. It’s pretty adorable.

If you don’t have a toy and instead sprinkle actual catnip on a cat tree or the ground, your cat might eat it instead of just smelling it. Again, this is perfectly safe for your kitty. However, eating catnip pretty much has the exact opposite effect of smelling it — they get relaxed and sleepy.

All my cats love to eat catnip. I place little piles of it on their cat tree and they eat it up, then fall asleep.

If you have a multi-cat household, it’s recommended to introduce catnip to each cat individually and see how they react. Some cats can tend to become a bit aggressive when given catnip, and you wouldn’t want that aggression directed towards another pet.

How Long Does Catnip’s Effect Last?

Your cat’s reaction to catnip will only last about 10 minutes. After this, they go through a “reset” period that can last as long as two hours before they’re able to react to catnip again.

Cats can’t overdose on catnip or anything, but if they eat too much they can throw up. Just be mindful of how much catnip your kitty is eating to make sure they don’t make themselves sick.

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Why Do Cats Love Catnip?

Just like humans love to eat a delicious, juicy burger or have a drink to relax at the end of the day, cats like the way catnip makes them feel. It’s an indulgence they only get if you provide them with some type of catnip toy or give them fresh catnip.

If your cat is one of the 50% that does react to catnip, it makes them feel either happy or sleepy depending on how they ingest it. I’m sure we can all agree that both of those are pretty good feelings — whether you’re a cat or a human.

Does Catnip Affect Humans?

Actually yes, though not in the same way. Since it’s in the mint family, catnip has been used to brew herbal teas. I’ve seen fresh catnip plants at my local health foods store with instructions to brew it for a relaxing tea. Instead of using the plant myself, I brought it home for my cats to try. They loved the fresh plant.

In a 2001 study, scientists discovered that when the nepetalactone oil was extracted from catnip it was 10 times more effective than DEET at repelling mosquitos. They aren’t sure why, but believe it has something to do with the strong odor.

Giving catnip to your cat won’t have any effect on you. You’d have to ingest it on your own if you wanted to use it.

How to Use Catnip

If you’re interested in introducing catnip to your feline, there are a few different approaches.

Fresh Catnip Plant

As I mentioned above, you can actually buy fresh catnip at some stores. You could plant it outside or leave it in its planter and let your cat interact with it on their own.

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With a fresh plant, you could also pick off some leaves and leave them for your cat to play with. In my experience, my cats loved eating the fresh leaves right off the plant.

Catnip Toys

If you want the low-maintenance and least messy option, buy them a toy filled with catnip. These last quite a long time, and your kitty will enjoy rubbing their face all over it and might roll around with it, too.

Dried Catnip

The most common way to buy catnip is dried and crushed up. You can sprinkle this catnip on cat trees or scratching posts, put a small pile for your cat to eat or even rub it on your cat’s favorite toy for extra stimulation.

It’s important to pick a fresh, high-quality catnip so the essential oils are still prominent. I buy tubs of catnip from From The Field’s product line — my cats go crazy for their catnip. To help release the potent oils, squeeze the catnip between your fingers before sprinkling it.

Catnip Spray

There’s also catnip spray, which is made from extracting the nepetalactone oil from the plant. It’s just the oil mixed with distilled water, but it tends to be more potent than dried catnip.

Catnip can sprayed on toys, but is especially helpful for training your cat. You can spray it on a new scratching post or pet bed to get them attracted to it. Cats can be weary of new items in your house, especially if it’s for your cat. Using this spray can attract them to it, and they’ll associate the item with happy feelings they get from the spray.

Most cats will love catnip. Even though they’re technically getting “high”, it’s 100% safe and non-addictive.

The plant’s other nicknames include catmint, catnep and Herbe à Chat, all in honor of the blissful reaction seen in cats.

Jacquelyn Pica

Jacquelyn Pica is cat mom to Bean Man Jones, a 2-year old adopted stray. She's also a top-notch pet writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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