The Truth About Cats and Catnip. Do They Really Get High?

What is Catnip?

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a minty herb from the Lamiaceae (mint) family. It is native to southern and eastern Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, but now grows around the world. Catnip has pointed green leaves and small white or lavender flowers clustered into heads. All parts of the catnip plant contain a chemical compound called nepetalactone. This is the primary active ingredient that causes the euphoric effect on cats.

Nepetalactone is an aromatic oil and iridoid compound found in the leaves and stems of catnip. Research indicates it binds to opioid receptors in the cat’s nose and stimulates sensory neurons, provoking the euphoric response (1). Unlike opioids that can have harmful side effects, nepetalactone is considered harmless to cats.


Catnip’s Effects on Cats

cat rolling in catnip

When cats smell or ingest catnip, it binds to receptors in their brain and stimulates a response similar to the high humans feel from marijuana. The chemical compound in catnip that causes this reaction is called nepetalactone. According to Dr. Emily Swiniarski, inhaling this chemical triggers the “feel good” regions in a cat’s brain releasing dopamine, leading to a mild euphoric effect (Source).

The most common reaction cats have to catnip is increased playfulness and activity. They may roll around, paw at, jump on, and even eat the catnip. Many cats also rub against, lick, or chew on catnip toys. The herb makes cats frisky and excitable. Another response is relaxation, which causes some cats to zone out or seem in a trance-like state. These effects typically last 5-15 minutes before fading.

Not all cats respond to catnip. According to estimates, about 50-70% of cats are affected by the herb, with cats under 6 months old rarely reacting. Genetics determine whether a cat responds to catnip or not.

Why Cats React to Catnip

Catnip contains an organic compound called nepetalactone that causes a euphoric reaction in cats when they smell it. Nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors in a cat’s nose and mimics feline “happy” pheromones. This triggers a response in the cat’s brain that makes them feel relaxed, content, and somewhat “intoxicated.”

cat sniffing catnip

Researchers believe this reaction originally developed as an evolutionary defense mechanism in wild cats. When a cat senses the nepetalactone in catnip, it triggers a response that makes the cat less inhibited and more playful. In the wild, this would allow cats to better defend their territory against threats. The relaxed feeling also encourages cats to roll around in the catnip, which then sticks to their fur and marks their territory.

Most cats will react to catnip by rolling around, rubbing against it, vocalizing, and becoming very playful. They may seem almost “drunk” with half-closed eyes and a sluggish demeanor. These intoxicating effects wear off after 5-15 minutes as the nepetalactone is metabolized. After 1-2 hours, the cat can again experience the effects from more exposure to catnip.

While not all cats react to catnip, experts estimate around 70-80% are susceptible to its euphoric effects. Kittens younger than six months old typically show no interest until reaching sexual maturity.

So in summary, catnip triggers a temporary euphoric state in cats due to the chemical nepetalactone binding to receptors in the cat’s nose and mimicking natural pheromones. This causes a relaxed, content, almost “high” feeling that makes the cat playful, affectionate and feel good.

Catnip Safety

Catnip is considered very safe for cats when used appropriately. The active chemical in catnip, called nepetalactone, does not have any known toxic effects on cats according to studies. Catnip has even been approved as a food additive by the FDA.

Most experts agree that catnip is non-addictive for cats. The euphoric effects of catnip will wear off after 5-15 minutes, and cats need an hour before reacting to catnip again. So cats are unable to continually use catnip as a recreational drug. There is no evidence that catnip leads to dependence or addiction in cats.

Catnip is generally not recommended for kittens under 6 months old, as their young immune systems and brains are still developing. But after 6 months, moderate catnip use appears completely safe. Some cats may eat fresh or dried catnip leaves, which does not cause illness even in large quantities. The main risk with overindulgence is an upset stomach from eating too much leafy material.

Overall, catnip has a long history of being enjoyed safely by domestic cats for decades. When used responsibly by owners, catnip provides cats with harmless, temporary enjoyment without any known side effects.

Signs Your Cat Enjoys Catnip

Catnip causes an intoxicating effect in cats that often leads to some entertaining behavior. When exposed to catnip, most cats will show signs that they are enjoying the high it produces. Here are some of the most common indicators that your cat is under the influence of catnip:

cat reacting to catnip

Rolling and writhing on the floor – Cats will often lie down and roll around on their backs while sniffing catnip. They may stretch out with their legs in the air and writhe around in delight.[1]

Rubbing against and bunny kicking – Cats tend to rub up against surfaces like walls or furniture after smelling catnip. They also often exhibit bunny kicking where they kick their hind legs up in the air rhythmically.

Licking and chewing – Some cats will lick or even try to eat catnip after sniffing it. They may chew on toys filled with catnip as if ingesting it intensifies the pleasant effects.

Vocalizing – Meowing, purring, chirping, and other excited vocalizations frequently occur when a cat is under the influence of catnip. They seem to be expressing their enjoyment.

Playful behavior – Catnip tends to make cats very active and playful. They’ll often jump, leap, and pounce around the house. They may play with catnip-filled toys more energetically.

Dilated pupils – A cat’s pupils often dilate after sniffing catnip. This physiological response indicates stimulation and excitement.

While reactions can vary, most cats clearly enjoy the effects of catnip. Watch for these signs of bliss and euphoria after exposing your cat to their favorite herb.

Do All Cats React to Catnip?

Not all cats are affected by catnip. Research shows that around 50-75% of cats react to catnip when exposed to it [1]. The exact percentage varies between different studies, but it’s clear that catnip sensitivity is an inherited genetic trait.

Cats that react to catnip have an inherited gene that causes them to respond to nepetalactone, the essential oil found in catnip plants. This oil binds to olfactory receptors in the cat’s nose and stimulates a response from the central nervous system. For sensitive cats, this causes euphoric effects and typically encourages playful behavior.

However, cats that lack this inherited gene are immune to the effects of catnip. Nepetalactone does not bind to their olfactory receptors in the same way, so they do not experience a reaction. These cats continue to behave normally when exposed to catnip.

Kittens younger than 3-6 months old also do not respond to catnip. Their reaction develops later as they mature. Older cats may become less sensitive to catnip as well. But the majority of adult cats enjoy the stimulating effects of catnip and react enthusiastically when you offer it to them.

Best Ways to Give Catnip

There are many fun and creative ways to give your cat catnip to enjoy. Here are some of the best methods:

Catnip toys – Catnip-filled toys are a great way to give your cat a long-lasting catnip experience. Toys like balls, plush mice, and catnip-filled socks are lots of fun for cats to play with and rub against. Try different types of catnip toys to see which ones your cat likes best. According to, you can make simple catnip toys at home by filling old socks with catnip and tying off the end (

cat with catnip toy

Loose catnip – You can give your cat loose, dried catnip to sniff, eat, roll in, or rub against. Simply sprinkle some on the floor or in their bed. Start with small amounts, like a pinch or two, to see how your cat responds. Wikihow recommends putting loose catnip in a paper bag or cardboard box with holes poked in it for a fun play toy (Wikihow).

Catnip spray – Spraying or misting catnip extract on toys is an easy way to make ordinary toys more enticing. Look for catnip sprays made specifically for cats. You can also make your own catnip spray by steeping catnip in hot water and transferring the liquid to a spray bottle.

Grow catnip plants – If you have a green thumb, grow pots of catnip for your cat to nibble on and rub against. Catnip is easy to grow – it just needs sun and weekly watering. Trim leaves frequently so your cat can enjoy fresh catnip. Keep plants out of reach of cats until fully grown.

With some creativity and experimenting with different methods, you can find exciting ways to give your cat catnip for playtime fun!

Fun Catnip Toys

Types of catnip stuffed toys cats enjoy include:

Plush toys – Plush catnip toys like mice, balls, and kickers allow cats to pounce, carry, and kick their prey. The plush exterior encases loose catnip that releases aroma as the toy is played with. Popular plush catnip toys include the Yeowww! Banana Catnip Toy and the Frisco Colorful Mice Cat Toy.

Tunnels – Encourage your cat’s inner hunter with catnip-filled tunnels like the Frisco Collapsible Cat Tunnel. Cats love to prowl through and pounce out from these soft tunnels.

Balls – Wiffle-style balls with catnip in the center like the JM Cat Nip Bons entice cats to bat them around and carry them in their mouths.

Crinkle toys – The sound and texture of crinkle catnip toys excites cats’ senses. Good options include the Petstages Crunchies Plush and Petstages Fresh Breath Mint Stick.

Other Uses for Catnip

While catnip is beloved by cats for its intoxicating effects, the herb has a long history of uses for humans that go far beyond recreational feline enjoyment. Catnip is known for its soothing and calming properties, and has been used for various medicinal purposes including relieving stomach upset, alleviating stress and anxiety, promoting sleep, relieving pain, and inducing menstruation.

Dried catnip leaves and flowers can be steeped to make a calming tea that helps relieve tension and anxiety. Catnip tea contains nepetalactone, which acts as a mild sedative. Some enjoy sipping catnip tea before bedtime due to its relaxing effects that can promote better sleep.

Catnip has also been used to treat stomach and intestinal cramps. The antispasmodic properties of catnip help relax the muscles in the digestive tract. Catnip tea or tincture can provide relief from cramping and discomfort.

In addition to internal uses, catnip essential oil is valued for its ability to relieve muscle aches and pains when applied topically. The natural chemicals in catnip have analgesic effects that can reduce minor discomfort associated with headaches, arthritis, and sore muscles when massaged into the skin.

While catnip is generally considered safe for most people when consumed in moderation, those who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid ingesting catnip. Some people may experience mild side effects like nausea or headache when consuming large amounts of catnip tea or extracts.

It’s interesting that the herb cats go crazy for also has a long history of providing calming and pain-relieving effects for us humans. Beyond its recreational use for our feline friends, catnip has many therapeutic benefits that have been relied on for centuries.



Catnip produces a range of responses in cats, from hyperactivity to relaxation. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about catnip:

What is catnip? Catnip is a flowering herb from the mint family that contains a chemical called nepetalactone. When cats smell or ingest catnip, nepetalactone binds to receptors in their brain and triggers responses like rubbing, rolling, and hyperactivity. Not all cats react to catnip – about 20-30% don’t respond at all.

Is catnip safe for cats? Yes, catnip is non-toxic and safe for cats when given in moderation. It’s generally recommended to limit catnip to about 15 minutes of exposure, 1-2 times per week. More frequent use can make cats temporarily insensitive to catnip’s effects.

Why does catnip make cats “high”? Catnip mimics feline “happy” pheromones, causing euphoric effects. However, cats are not actually getting “high” or addicted. The catnip response is temporary and harmless.

At what age do cats start reacting to catnip? Kittens younger than 3-6 months old typically do not respond to catnip. Older cats can become less sensitive to it with age. Most cats reach peak catnip sensitivity between 6 months and 1 year old.

Does catnip work on big cats like lions and tigers? Yes, nepetalactone affects many feline species, though house cats exhibit the strongest response. Big cats like lions and tigers can react to catnip with playful behavior.

Can I grow catnip at home? Catnip is very easy to grow. It thrives in most conditions, prefers full sun, and grows as a perennial in many regions. Just be sure to limit your cat’s access to prevent overindulgence.

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