What Does Catnip Do for Cats?

Posted by Dr. Jessica on

relaxed cat chewing cat nip

Catnip is a popular treat for felines the world over, but many pet parents don’t know much about it. How does catnip work on cats? Pet parents might want to know how to tell if cats are actually “high” when they get into it, and if cats can have too much catnip.

This catnip FAQ will cover what cat parents need to know about this popular herb, including why it does what it does and how it can help cats who need to chill out a bit.

What Is Catnip?

Catnip—or Nepeta cataria to use its scientific name—is a member of the mint family. It grows in herb gardens and is pervasive as a weed. People sometimes use it to make a calming herbal tea. It was a folk remedy for infant colic among Native American tribes, and herbalists still use it to relieve digestive complaints as well as nervous tension.

Most of all, though, catnip is known for the euphoric high that it produces in cats. 

What Does Catnip Do for Cats? 

When most cats encounter catnip, it seems like they can’t get enough of it. They’ll lick and bite it, roll around in it, or rub their face in the leaves. 

This behavior is pretty darned cute, but it’s more than that. Cat nip releases an oil called nepetalactone, which scientists believe explains cats’ reaction to the herb.

How Catnip Acts on the Kitty Brain

As cats crush and tear the catnip leaves, the oil winds its way up the nasal passages where, researchers think, it binds to specific protein receptors that cause sensory neurons to fire.

The exact chain reaction after that point is a bit of a mystery. Some researchers think the nepetalactone oil might mimic kitty pheromones. That means a cat on catnip might actually be sexually excited. 

Whatever the neurological responses are exactly, one thing is obvious—cats love their catnip. 

Different Cats, Different Reactions

When the “high” of catnip hits, some cats become wildly playful and hyperactive. They run around the room, jump on any toy they can find, and stretch themselves out like they’re auditioning for the circus. It’s like someone flipped a switch and sent them into hyperdrive.

Other cats become extremely mellow and chilled-out. The effect is almost like the “couch-lock” that humans experience when they try certain varieties of cannabis—they don’t want to move and seem completely fine with a laid back vibe.

And then there are the estimated 20% to 30% of cats who don’t react to catnip. Scientists believe that this pattern is genetic, meaning that the gene that activates the catnip reaction is absent or deactivated. Kittens and older cats are also less likely to react. That’s okay, though—there are plenty of other ways for these kitties to have fun.

Catnip Effects: How Does It Affect Cat Health & Behavior?

Because humans tend to compare the effects of catnip to those of a mind-altering drug, many pet parents worry that their cat can overdose on the herb. Fortunately, that’s highly unlikely.

No Evidence of Long-Term Damage

Cats seem to have a natural shutoff valve for catnip. Some might eat too much of it and feel sick for a while, but there’s no evidence of cats suffering long-term damage from ingesting or interacting with too much catnip.

That said, if a particular cat tends to have extreme behavioral reactions to catnip, it’s not a bad idea to regulate how much they get. That’s especially true for cats who play too aggressively. In fact, if a cat has a tendency to attack other pets and humans in the house when they get overexcited, it’s best to try catnip in a very small dose (if at all).

A Way to Manage Anxious Behavior

Catnip isn’t just for fun—it’s also a useful way of managing a cat’s anxious behaviors. Just dispense the catnip, watch the cat chill out, and coast right through otherwise stress-inducing situations like a vet visit, car ride, or nail-clipping session.

Even cats who have a hyperactive response usually calm down after zooming about the house for half an hour. If the pet parent times it right and offers catnip about 30 minutes before the stress-inducing event, the cat should be in a relaxed state at just the right time.

Need More Information Than What’s In This Catnip FAQ? 

Catnip is a safe and fun treat for most cats. Still, it’s important for pet parents to remember that every cat is different and some may have more extreme reactions than others. 


To talk with a vet about catnip tips and how it works on cats, become a member today and take advantage of Fuzzy’s 24/7 Live Vet Chat to get on-demand answers to all your pet health and behavior questions from the Fuzzy Veterinary Support Team.