What does catnip do to cats?

A fisheye shot of a cat lying on its back with some catnip
(Image credit: Getty Images)

What does catnip do to cats? If you have a cat then you're doubtless already aware of the effect that it has on most of them: it drives them utterly demented for a short while, and in the most adorable ways. But what's so special about catnip that makes cats behave that way? Here's where we answer all your questions.

Unless you're one of the unfortunate minority of cat owners whose furry charges are entirely unaffected by it, you've likely treated your fluffball to catnip in some shape or form, with delightful results. Whether you opt for one of the best catnip toys, a bag of multipurpose dried catnip, or even try growing your own fresh catnip, it's a sure-fire way to get kitty hyped up or blissed out; at least for a while until they suddenly lose all interest.

How does it do that? You may be wondering: does catnip make cats high? If so, is it really safe for them? And what's the difference between catnip and catmint? Read on to discover the answers to all these questions and more.

What is catnip?

A catnip plant

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Catnip – or nepeta cataria as it's known to botanists – is a member of the mint family that can be found growing wild across North America and Europe. It closely resembles a standard mint plant, but it'll stand out when in bloom thanks to its blue, white, pink or lavender flowers. It's really easy to grow at home (as long as your cat doesn't find and devour it), and when dried its leaves look a lot like oregano.

If you're confused about the difference between catnip and catmint, our catmint vs. catnip article can explain, but the main thing you need to know, as far as your moggy's concerned, is that catnip is The Good Stuff.

What does catnip do to cats?

A ginger cat lying with some catnip, with its mouth open

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We all know what catnip does to cats, but maybe not so much about the mechanisms behind it. The secret ingredient that drives most cats wild is nepetalactone, which is an oil found in catnip leaves, and just the smell of it is enough to make your cat kick off. So why do cats go crazy for catnip?

If you've ever watched your cat having a really good sniff of something, such as messages from other cats sprayed around your garden, you may have noticed its mouth hanging open as it does so. And that's because it has an extra scent organ in the roof of its mouth: the vomeronasal gland. It's a special scent pathway that's a hotline directly to the brain, and it's mainly used for identifying pheromones from other cats.

Nepetalactone closely mimics feline sex hormones, and that's why the behavior of cats on catnip can look a lot like females in heat; some get really playful or sometimes aggressive, or become really happy or affectionate, or just completely relaxed. So, does catnip make cats high? In a way, yes; a chemical's acting on their little brains and temporarily modifying their behavior.

The benefits of catnip

Because catnip often has a stimulant effect on cats, it can be enormously beneficial; not just to your cat, but to you as well. We don't mean that you should try it yourself – it has little, if any effect on people – but it can be used as an effective cat training tool. For example, if you've bought one of the best cat scratching posts but kitty still prefers to work out its claws on the furniture, rubbing some catnip into the scratching post can be just the thing to make it more attractive to your cat.

A tabby cat playing with a catnip toy

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Beyond behavior adjustment, catnip's a great way to add a little enrichment to your cat's life. Playing with a catnip toy can give a more sedentary feline some much-needed exercise, and while in some cats you may find that catnip actually has a more sedative effect, this means you can use it to help calm kitty in stressful situations, such as trying to get a scared cat to the vet.

Negative effects of catnip

Not all cats exhibit playful or chilled behavior when exposed to catnip; for some it's just too stimulating, and an over-stimulated cat is one that may suddenly turn on you with all of its sharp ends. You needn't worry about your cat overdosing on catnip, though; even if it decides to eat a whole load of it, the very worst that'll happen is an upset tummy. 

Is catnip bad for cats? In short, no. Hitting the catnip too hard can result in dizziness, vomiting or diarrhea, but while this can be worrying for you, your cat will likely sleep it off and be fine afterwards. And ultimately this situation's unlikely, for reasons we'll come to next.

How long do catnip effects last?

A ginger cat lying down behind a catnip plant

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The great thing about catnip is that, from a cat's perspective, it's entirely self-limiting. The effects of catnip kick in almost instantly and can last for 10 minutes or so; after that, though, the effect wears off and, crucially, for a good while afterwards (anything between half an hour and a few hours) your cat will be completely immune to its effects and utterly uninterested in the catnip it was so excited about a few minutes previously. Which is a relief; nobody should ever have to deal with an out-of-control feline on an unstoppable catnip bender.

How often should I give my cat catnip?

Thanks to the speed at which catnip wears off, resulting in your cat losing interest, you're not going to have to deal with a cat constantly demanding another hit on the 'nip. Ideally, though, you should use catnip just like any of the best cat treats: sparingly. 

While your cat's not going to get fat off catnip, just as with other mood-enhancing substances, it may build up a tolerance if it's enjoying multiple catnip sessions daily. We'd suggest, at most, one go on the catnip every day, or just a few times a week; that way it'll stay fun for all concerned.

Can kittens have catnip?

There's no reason why a kitten shouldn't have catnip, although you'll probably find that it's a complete waste of time. Not only are kittens naturally hyperactive and adorable, they're also completely immune to the effects of catnip until about six months old. That's because of the way catnip works; as we mentioned, it mimics the effect of feline sex hormones, and until a kitten reaches sexual maturity, that nepetalactone will have no effect on it. For more details, see our guide: Can kittens have catnip?

Jim McCauley

Jim is a writer, performer and cat-wrangler based in Bath, who last year adopted a pair of sibling rescue cats who turned out to be effectively feral, and has spent a lot of time since then trying to get them accustomed to people (some success) and each other (ongoing project).