What Is Catnip and Why Does It Make Cats High?

We have all seen the funny videos or pictures of cats that have been exposed to catnip. It only takes a little catnip to transform a generally calm cat to a wild one or a wild one to a calm one. Some of the cats may look a little spacey, some of them are hyper, and some have no reaction at all. All of those reactions are completely normal. However, many people do not know what catnip is actually is, how it works, and how it can be used as a training tool.

What Is Catnip?

Simply put, catnip, also known as 'cat mint' is a leafy green plant. Its scientific name is Nepeta Cataria. The plant is closely related to spearmint and oregano. It has an essential oil in it called Nepetalactone and this is what cats respond to. It is thought that this oil is similar to a cat pheromone, although catnip has nothing to do with cat reproduction. The plant is originally found in Europe, but with the right conditions, it can grow anywhere.

In North America, it generally grows along railroads (Keith Veronese, Gizmodo). Although it is found naturally, it's important not to feed your cat just any catnip. Like a lot of plants, it may contain pesticides or other poison. You can purchase catnip at your local pet supply store or you can grow it yourself. Directions and tips on growing catnip can be found here.

Are all cats attracted to catnip?

An interesting fact about catnip is not all cats like it or even have effects from it. According to the Humane Society, only 50% of cats have a response to catnip. The Humane Society goes on to explain that a reaction to catnip is generally hereditary. If you have a cat that responds to catnip, depending on the genes of the other parent, your cat may not like catnip. Generally, you will not know if your kitten has inherited the 'catnip trait' until 3-6 months old. Very young kittens will not respond to it.

How do you give your cat catnip?

There are several methods of delivery for catnip. Some cats go crazy simply by smelling it while others may eat it. Many cats will simply roll around in it. It sticks to their fur and the smells activate the receptors in their olfactory systems. Owners can also crush the leaves of fresh catnip to release the oil. You can apply the oil to toys and give to your cat.

One familiar way that owners also give their cat catnip is with toys. Pet stores sell toys shaped like mice or other animals that have catnip in them. This encourages the cat to play with the toy itself and also provides stimulation for the prey drive of the cat.

The other way of giving your cats catnip is by allowing them to eat it. Give them a few crushed up leaves depending on the size of the cat. Cats will also lick the plant or chew on the plant itself. While it's not really possible to overdose on catnip, it is possible to overindulge. Be sure to supervise your cat if they are eating catnip. They can get sick if they eat too much.

How do cats respond to catnip?

Like certain herbs and chemicals in humans, cats have various responses to catnip. Some cat owners have described it as 'kitty crack,' marijuana for cats, or even LSD for cats. Some owners report that their cat has their fill and then sits back, stares into space, or they fixate on an item in the room.

This is similar to what happens with humans with certain drugs. Other owners describe their cats just wanting to roll around in it and generally act crazy. Cats will sometimes howl or make other noises while under the influence of catnip. Jeff Grogent suggests that the sounds produced by cats, under the influence, are due to hallucinations. 

Just as humans would react to hallucinations on a drug like LSD, they are reacting to what they 'see.' Another effect of catnip is that it can make a cat abnormally aggressive. Veterinarians are not exactly sure why. It could be akin to a human having a bad trip on a drug. Other side effects include but are not limited to: drooling, panting, sleepiness, and a general laziness. While it is a safe 'drug' for your kitty to indulge in, some owners do not allow their kitty to be exposed to catnip. It can alter the cat's personality too much, even if it's for a short time.

Play time with the catnip generally only lasts around 10-15 minutes but the effects can last anywhere from an hour to several hours. According to the Humane Society, it typically takes "two hours for the olfactory receptors to be 'reset' and respond to catnip again." Cats do tend to become desensitized to catnip if used too often. Where some cats initially had a big reaction to it, over time, this reaction becomes less. 

Catnip as a training tool

Catnip can also be used as a training tool. Catnip can be sprayed onto a scratching post and litter box to help encourage the use of these things. It could save your couch and chairs from getting clawed. It can also be used to bring a shy cat out of its shell and show its playful side. Other owners report using catnip to help ease the stress of car rides.

Allow your cat to be exposed to whichever method works for him/her and then load into a carrier once the catnip starts working. Be sure you know how your cat responds to catnip before using this training tool. If the catnip does not mellow out your cat, putting your cat in a carrier is a bad idea.

Can humans use catnip?

An interesting fact about catnip is that a human can actually partake in catnip too, that is if kitty will share. Catnip has been used for hundreds of years. It can be consumed by making a tea with the leaves. A recipe for that can be found on The Right Tea along with more information about human consumption. Catnip has a calming and sedative effect on humans.

However, the effects only last a few hours. Please note: This is not medical advice and everyone may not have a positive response. As you can see, catnip can be used for various reasons and forms. Finding the right catnip is a simple experiment to see what works and what doesn't. So next time you give your cat catnip, just know they are (mostly) on a really good trip.

Photos of cats on catnip courtesy of Alisha Walkenbach used with permission.

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