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What Does Catnip Do To Cats?
Updated on September 15, 2022
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What Does Catnip Do To Cats?
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Try taking out bag of catnip while being around cats, and they will instantly swarm you. 

Whether it grows in your backyard or packed as treats that are designed to make our feline friends go crazy, it’s no mystery that cats are attracted to catnip.

Even lions, tigers, and other wild cats are unable to resist it. This is because catnip affects a cat’s brain and behavior.

What Does Catnip Do To Cats? 2

What is Catnip and Where To Get it?

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is an herb from the mint family. It grows up to 3 feet and has green leaves. It has white flowers with pale purple or pink spots.

The catnip plant is found in many countries across Asia, Europe, Africa, and North America. It grows in the wild, but you can cultivate in your backyard.

Many cat owners grow catnip in gardens and outdoor spaces. The plant prefers loamy or sandy soil and plenty of sunlight.

Alternatively, you can buy catnip treats. They come in many forms like dried catnip leaves, catnip sprays, and catnip toys.

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How Does Catnip Affect Cats?

Catnip produces nepetalactone through its stems and leaves. It is a chemical that releases a volatile oil which evaporates in air. 

Nepetalactone oil binds with olfactory (smell) receptors inside a cat’s nose. To put simply, your cat can smell it.

When your cat smells catnip, it stimulates their olfactory bulb. It is a part of the brain that processes scents picked up by the nose. 

In turn, this affects different areas of a cat’s brain — including the amygdala and hypothalamus. 

The amygdala is responsible for a cat’s behavior. Meanwhile, the hypothalamus regulates many basic functions like hunger, emotions, and libido.

Catnip mimics the effects of a pheromone and stimulates a sexual response in cats. This can lead to euphoria or intense feelings of bliss.

Do All Cats React to Catnip?

Scientists believe a cat’s response to catnip is genetic, and only 2 out of 3 felines have it

Most cats don’t react to catnip until they are 6 months to 1 year old. However, kittens that are sensitive to catnip may react to it an early age.1

A more recent study suggests that all felines react to catnip in some way. However, they respond differently — with some becoming active or passive, or a combination of both.2

For example, while most cats appear calm and relaxed after being exposed to catnip, others become overexcited and play aggressively.

What Are Catnip Effects On Cats?

How a cat responds to catnip may also depend on how they consume it

Effects of Smelling Catnip

When cats smell catnip, it stimulates their senses and triggers the “happy” receptors in their brain. This causes them to behave like a female cat in heat — even if they’re male.

The cat may appear erratic and do the following:

  • Roll around
  • Flip over
  • Rub on everything
  • Meow or growl strangely

They may also become overactive or unusually aggressive, especially when you go near them.

Effects of Eating Catnip

When cats eat or nibble on catnip, it creates an opposite effect. Instead of stimulating their senses, it sedates them.

This makes a cat feel calm and relaxed. You will likely see them asleep or lying down shortly after ingesting catnip.

How Long Does Catnip’s Effects Last?

The effects of catnip may last about 5 to 30 minutes. After that, the cat may “zone out” and lose interest in the catnip.

It may take up to 2 hours before they become susceptible to catnip again.

Does Catnip Make Your Cat High?

No. Catnip may seem like an addictive drug, but it doesn’t cause addiction or make a cat “high”.

Cats that are exposed to it can become playful, excited, and agitated — effects that are very similar to stimulant drugs. 

Others become calm and relaxed, which is how the human body reacts to depressants.

But there is currently no evidence that catnip works in the same way as addictive substances, such as marijuana or cocaine.3

Is Catnip Safe for Cats?

Yes. The catnip plant is generally safe for cats. There’s also no proof it’s harmful to kittens.

It doesn’t have addictive properties. But you may want to avoid giving too much catnip to your cat. Ideally, your feline friend should only have a small amount every 2 weeks or so.

Can Kittens Have Catnip?

Yes. Young kittens can tolerate catnip. But they may not react to them like older cats. 

Their vomeronasal organ (which helps cats discern different smells) is not yet developed in younger kittens. So they can’t smell catnip.

They might even find it repulsive until they’re 3 to 6 months old, when they are sexually mature.

Since kittens are highly active and easily entertained, there’s no need to introduce them to catnip at an early age.

Can Cats Get Sick From Catnip?

Yes. While it’s unlikely for cats to overdose from catnip if they sniff or rub on it, they can get sick if they eat too much.

Eating excessive amounts of catnip may cause digestive upset. This can lead to vomiting or diarrhea.

Should You Give Catnip to Your Cat?

Like many cat owners, you can give it to your cat for recreation or to help train them.

Benefits of Giving Catnip to Your Cat

Catnip can help you improve your cat’s lifestyle, daily routine, and habits. Here are some of the things you can do with it:

  • Encourage docile or senior cats to play or exercise
  • Train your kitty for vet visits
  • Keep cats away from furniture by spraying catnip on their scratching post
  • Soothe your cat’s anxiety when adjusting to a new place or home
  • Keep your cat calm during baths with catnip-infused bathwater
  • Improve your cat’s sleeping habits

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Cristine Santander
Cristine Santander
Content Contributor
Cristine Santander is a content writer for KnowYourDNA. She has a B.S. in Psychology and enjoys writing about health and wellness.
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