How Catnip Gets Your Cat High

Cat Behavior, Cats

Last Updated - December 12, 2023

It's no secret cats love catnip, and it's like a drug that makes cats even weirder and crazier than ever. Given to domestic cats to enhance playtime, you can find fresh and dried catnip in pet stores. Often infused into cat toys and treats, you can also find catnip sprays.

While cat owners know cats enjoy catnip, many need to know exactly what catnip is, how it works, and, more importantly, possible precautions. To help you understand more about catnip, we have put together this guide for you.

What is Catnip?

Catnip is a herb plant known as Nepeta cataria, a member of the mint family. It is widely grown in Europe, Asia, and North America. Catnip had been used to make teas and herbal supplements to treat human ailments, but soon it was discovered that catnip produced aromatic oils that can have stimulant effects on cats.

Benefits Of Catnip For Cats

  • When ingested, it can act as a sedative and ease anxiety, stress, and depression.

  • Catnip Can reduce stomach aches and bloat.

  • Infusing bath water with catnip can help get your cat to take a bath.

  • Placing catnip on toys, bedding, and scratchers can encourage exercise and play.

  • Catnip can be particularly beneficial for indoor cats as cats need both mental and physical enrichment. Indoor cats can get bored easily, and catnip toys and plants are most commonly used to relieve boredom and encourage exercise and play.

Side Effects And Overdose On Catnip

Catnip may be recommended and often used for its many benefits – but there is potential for overdosing or unintended side effects. If a large amount of catnip is ingested, it can cause intestinal upset, such as vomiting and diarrhea. Excessive exposure can also cause additional health problems, including dizziness, vertigo, imbalance, and difficulty walking. 

What Does Catnip Do To Cats

Catnip affects a cat's brain when inhaled or eaten as it can stimulate their senses and keep them calm. The produced oil found within the catnip plant leaves, nepetalactone, can cause behavior changes when exposed to the herb.

When your feline friend is exposed to catnip, their olfactory bulb transmits the scent from the nose to the brain. Once the brain recognizes the oil from fresh or dried catnip, it causes an almost intoxicated reaction. It hypothesizes to mimic pheromones in the nasal receptors for about five to ten minutes and then takes about 30 minutes to become susceptible to the effect again.

This means a stimulated cat may excessively rub their face in the infused object, rolling around and drooling. Additionally, behaviors may typically include overt signs of affection, relaxation, overall happiness, playfulness, and sometimes signs of aggression. Some cats react by exhibiting behaviors similar to female cats in heat (but male cats can be affected too).

While those are the most common reactions, not all cats will react to catnip the same way. Studies have shown that typically only 60-70% of cats will have a behavioral reaction to catnip, which is an "all or nothing" reaction. Whether or not they react may also be dependent on their genetics. Young kittens and senior cats typically show no effect and may even need to avoid it.

After the immediate stimulation gradually wears off, they seem unaffected by any more catnip for about 30 more minutes. Cats usually sit calmly and quietly after the initial effects wear off, which is why it is often used to ease stress and anxiety.

Cat and scratch post with catnip

Source: Flickr

Why Do Cats Love Catnip

Cats love the way catnip makes them feel. It stimulates their senses and keeps them calm. While catnip may seem like a drug that gets them "high" and can change cat behavior temporarily, they are not additive for cats.

Golden Tips for Using Catnip

Go With Fresh Catnip When Possible

Catnip may be available in multiple forms – dried, fresh, sprays, infused – and can have different potency based on how it is supplied. It is important to note that the potency of fresh catnip is much higher than that of the dried form. Therefore, when given in fresh form, watch how much you give to your cat.

Fresh catnip plants are a better choice because they are all-natural and give your cats a healthy connection to nature, especially indoor-only cats. When using fresh leaves of catnip, it is important to remember that the oils are produced on the glands on the underside of the leaves. Therefore, taking one leaf off the plant at a time is recommended, and rubbing it on a toy or perch to avoid overexposing your cat to the oils on the entire plant. 

Store Your Catnip Properly

Catnip may also lose potency over time depending on how it is stored, so its stimulatory effects may differ after a long period. It is important to pay attention to how catnip is stored and not provide an excessive amount at one time if the reaction is not as extreme as usual. 

Introduce Catnip Properly

If you are a multi-cat household, it's best to test how each cat is individually affected by catnip. It would help if you also introduced catnip to each cat individually to avoid any potential fights, as some cats can get aggressive.

Consult With Your Vet

It is recommended to consult with your veterinarian for more information on best practices and specifications for your cat based on its particular medical history. 


Are there alternatives to catnip?

Other plants like valerian root, silver vine, and Tatarian honeysuckle cause similar effects on cats as catnip. It is a climbing plant native to the mountains of China and Japan and is much more potent than catnip. It is often used in the 30-40% of cats that do not react to catnip, and it is also not as widely known or supplied as catnip.

How often should I give my cat catnip?

Excessive exposure to catnip can cause detrimental side effects to your cat's health and also can cause them to be less susceptible to stimulatory oils. It is recommended to give your cat catnip about once every two to three weeks. While you can give your cat catnip daily, discussing your cat's situation with your veterinarian for specific recommendations is important. 

How to Give Cat Catnip?

You can give your cat catnip in many ways and choose whichever works best for you and your cats. Here are some options: rub catnip leaves into your cat's scratching post to encourage use, place catnip-infused toys around your house to promote active play and exercise, sprinkle dry catnip in a new environment (perch, room, cat tree, etc.) to encourage them to explore and become comfortable or to help introduce multiple cats, place catnip in a carrier to reduce anxiety during travel. 

Can Cats Overdose On Catnip?

There is potential for overdosing or unintended side effects. Too much catnip can cause vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, or trouble walking. If you are unsure how much to give your cat, discuss it with your veterinarian.

Can Kittens Have Catnips?

Most cats will react to catnip once they are six months to a year old. As young kittens get older, they slowly increase their sensitivity.

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About the Author

Doctor of veterinary medicine with extensive experience in animal welfare with a strong interest in feline medicine and plans to pursue ABVP-Feline specialty board certification. A key member of many local veterinary associations and avid reader of animal related science journals and studies.