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What is catnip?

cat eating catnip advice © Shutterstock

You might have heard of it, but what is catnip? Well, we’ve got the answers. We’ll tell you what catnip does, the effects of catnip, and how often a cat can have it

By Ashley Murphy

We all need something to take the edge of life. Most civilised cat owners prefer for a few glasses of wine, while others prefer a cold beer out of the fridge. It helps us unwind and relax, and that's what catnip does for our feline friends. But not all cats respond to catnip in the same way. Depending on how it's consumed, catnips works as a mild sedative or a strong stimulant. A bit of catnip will stimulate sensory neurons inside your cat's brain, which then mimics their natural responses to certain types of cat pheromone.

What is catnip? 

Catnip is a plant that is a member of the mint family. It has “furry” leaves and white flowers covered with purple spots. Also known as catmint, it has a very distinct smell that most cats just can't get enough off!

Why do cats love catnip?

Catnip contains something called Nepetalactone, an organic compound which attracts cats. Nepetalactone is found in the leaves and the stems of the plant and it is believed to affect around 70% of cats. It also appears that a cat’s taste for catnip is genetic. In other words, most cats have a gene that makes them go catnip crazy, while for around 30% it has no noticeable effects whatsoever.

How are cats affected by catnip? 

This depends on how your cat likes their catnip. When ingested orally, catnip produces a sedative-like effect. According to some experts, it mimics the kind of relaxed high that some humans experience after smoking marijuana (whether or not cats get the munchies is yet to be confirmed!) 

Smelling catnip has a completely different effect. Rather than a chilled out "high," smelling catnip leads to hyperactive behaviours associated with stimulants like caffeine.

These effects last for around 10 mins. After that, the cat is immune to catnip for the next thirty minutes and, as far as we know, there are no unpleasant side effects or “comedowns.”

So how does catnip actually work? 

OK. Here comes the science bit. Nepetalactone binds to receptors in the brain that stimulate sensory neurons. These neurons then send messages to several parts of a cat's brain, including the amygdala and hippocampus, both of which play crucial roles in regulating emotional responses. "Happy" chemicals like serotonin and dopamine are then released, leading to feelings of heightened sensitivity, increased energy levels, contentment, and euphoria. 

So catnip is like a drug for cats? 

It certainly seems to be. Catnip works on a cat's brain in the same ways certain drugs work on the human brain. It also appears to produce many of the same effects. As well as working as a sedative and a stimulant, it might also have some psychedelic properties. In other words, some cats may start to hallucinate after consuming catnip. And there's evidence that they really enjoy the experience! For example, wild cats like lions and tigers and the jaguar actively seek out Yage, a powerful psychedelic plant used by South American tribes for thousands of years. Although there's no definitive scientific proof, much of the domesticated cat's behaviour on catnip mimics how jaguars act after chewing on some Yage leaves.


Is catnip bad for my cat?

This probably all sounds a bit strange, but don't worry; catnip is perfectly safe for cats. But, as with most things in life, too much catnip can be a bad thing. In fact, too much can lead to some vomiting and diarrhoea. Again, don't worry; these symptoms will clear up on their own, and there won't be any lasting damage. Just keep your kitty off the catnip for a few days!

How often can my cat have catnip? 

This is for you to decide. Some experts recommend limiting catnip to just once or twice every few weeks, while others suggest giving your cat a daily dose. Much depends on how your cat responds to catnip and how comfortable you feel giving it to them. Although it appears to have no negative side effects, catnip is still a psychotropic substance. In other words, it alters your cat's brain chemistry. 

When should I give my cat some catnip?

Catnip can be a very effective training tool. For example, if you want your cat to stop scratching the furniture, sprinkle some catnip onto a scratching post.

It can also be used to help relax your cat in potentially stressful situations, like car journeys or trips to the vet. 

Where do I get catnip from? 

You can buy catnip from any decent pet store or online retailer. It comes in sprays, powders, or dry leaves. You can also purchase cat toys which have been sprinkled with small amounts of catnip.


Cats don't need catnip, but they certainly seem to enjoy it!  Although it appears to have no negative long-term effects, it's best kept as a treat to reward your cat or to encourage the right kind of behaviour. After all, you don't want your cat going catnip crazy!