Does Catnip Really Get Cats High? The Truth About This Controversial Herb

What is Catnip?

Catnip (botanical name Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb from the mint family Lamiaceae. It is a fast-growing plant that reaches 1-3 feet tall and has green or grayish-green foliage with white or light purple flower spikes (

Catnip is native to southern and eastern Europe, though it grows wild in most of Europe, parts of Asia and Africa, and North America. It typically grows in dry, sunny areas and is commonly found along roadsides, old fields, and at the edges of wooded areas.

The key chemical compound that causes a euphoric reaction in cats is called nepetalactone. This organic compound is found in the leaves and stems of catnip plants. When cats smell this volatile oil, it binds to receptors in their noses and stimulates a response that affects their behavior and mood.

Positive Effects of Catnip on Cats

cat rolling in catnip

Catnip contains an organic compound called nepetalactone that elicits a stimulant effect and euphoric response in cats when smelled or ingested (1). The response to catnip is often characterized by cats rubbing their heads on the catnip source, rolling around, and displaying playful/hyperactive behaviors for 5-15 minutes before calming down (2). Most cats experiencing a catnip high demonstrate temporary feelings of relaxation and happiness after the initial active phase (3). Catnip acts as a stimulant and can encourage play behavior in cats while also reducing anxiety and stress levels (4). However, the effects of catnip only last for a short time before wearing off. Therefore, catnip should be used in moderation as an occasional treat.


Potential Negative Effects of Catnip

While catnip is generally safe for cats to enjoy, overindulgence can potentially lead to some negative side effects. According to WebMD, consuming very high doses of catnip, such as multiple cups of catnip tea, can cause headaches, vomiting, and diarrhea in cats1. PetMD also warns that too much catnip can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness or trouble walking2.

Some key potential negative effects of catnip to be aware of include:

  • Overindulgence can cause drooling, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Aggressive behavior in some cats
  • Lethargy or depression afterwards

Moderation is key when giving catnip to cats. Just a small amount is usually enough to provide the positive effects without inducing any negative side effects. Monitoring your cat’s reaction and adjusting the dosage accordingly can help avoid potential health issues.

Dosage and Frequency Recommendations

When giving catnip to your cat, it’s important not to overdo it. Catnip causes a brief high in cats, typically lasting about 10-15 minutes, after which they lose interest for at least an hour before the effects can be repeated (1). Some key dosage recommendations include:

cat playing with catnip toy

  • Start with a small amount like 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon of dried catnip or a couple fresh leaves or buds (2).
  • Limit catnip to once or twice a day at most.
  • Let your cat self-regulate their intake. Put some in a toy or sprinkle it on the floor and let them interact with it freely.
  • Keep an eye on your cat to ensure they don’t get overstimulated or aggressive.

While catnip is non-toxic for cats, overindulging can cause vomiting or diarrhea. It’s best to give responsibly and allow your cat to show when they’ve had enough. Moderation is key when it comes to enjoying the amusing effects of catnip.



Health Concerns and Contraindications

In most cases, catnip is safe for cats to consume in moderation. However, there are some health concerns and instances where catnip should be avoided:

Catnip should not be given to pregnant cats or young kittens under 6 months old, as it can induce premature labor or have other adverse effects on development. Some sources recommend avoiding catnip for cats recovering from surgery or illness as well.

For cats taking medication, it’s best to check with your veterinarian before introducing catnip, as it may interact with certain drugs. Specifically, catnip can enhance the effects of sedatives and relaxants. It may also react with drugs that affect serotonin levels.

Rarely, some cats may have an adverse reaction to catnip, including digestive upset or hyperactive behavior. Discontinue use if any concerning symptoms develop.

While catnip is non-toxic for cats, ingesting extremely large amounts could potentially cause vomiting or diarrhea. Moderation is key.

Non-Toxicity of Catnip

Catnip is not known to be toxic to cats when used appropriately. The active chemical in catnip, called nepetalactone, is non-toxic and safe for cats [1]. There have been no reports of long-term adverse health effects from catnip use.

cat ignoring catnip

While non-toxic, eating very large amounts of catnip may cause gastrointestinal upset like vomiting or diarrhea. This can happen if a cat eats a large pile of raw catnip. The upset stomach should pass quickly as the cat’s body metabolizes the catnip [2].

Catnip is also not addictive for cats and does not cause withdrawal symptoms. Cats may enthusiastically return to catnip over and over, but this is not the same as human drug addiction. The chemical in catnip does not create a physical dependence. Vets sometimes recommend catnip for anxiety in cats because it is a safe substance [3].

Differences in Catnip Response

Cats have varied responses to catnip due to genetics. Research published in Biological Sciences Review found that sensitivity to catnip is determined by a dominant gene [1]. If a cat inherits the dominant “catnip sensitive” gene from one parent, they will respond to catnip. Kittens under 6 months old typically do not respond to catnip, even if they have the genetic sensitivity [2]. Additionally, some adult cats seem resistant to the effects of catnip, likely because they inherited two copies of the recessive “catnip resistant” gene [3]. However, most cats (around 70-80%) will respond to catnip if they inhale, eat, or rub against it.

Alternatives to Loose Catnip

While loose dried catnip can have some downsides, there are a few alternatives that provide the aromatic stimulation cats enjoy in a safer form:

Catnip sprays, toys, and treats allow owners to control the dosage and exposure. According to, catnip toys and sprays “limit your cat’s exposure while still providing enrichment.” Treats with catnip are another option. With these alternatives, owners can monitor how much catnip their cat is consuming.

Plants like silver vine (Actinidia polygama) provide a similar attractive aroma for cats. As explained by, silver vine contains actinidine, which binds to cat’s olfactory receptors much like nepetalactone in catnip. Other plants like Tatarian honeysuckle and valerian can also have a stimulating or sedative effect.

Trying catnip alternatives allows owners to provide their cats with variety and stimulation, while avoiding potential overexposure from loose catnip.

Moderation is Key

Catnip should be an occasional treat for cats, not something they have access to daily. Moderating catnip usage is important for a few reasons:

First, overindulging in catnip can cause stomach upset, diarrhea or vomiting in some cats. It’s best to limit treats to a couple times a week at most. Monitor your cat’s response after exposure and reduce frequency if any adverse effects occur.

Additionally, some cats can become increasingly aggressive with frequent catnip use over time. This is especially true for cats who tend to get overstimulated or dominant after catnip. Remove access to catnip if your cat starts displaying aggressive behavior like attacking or scratching.

In summary, catnip should be an occasional treat used in moderation, not a daily routine. Pay attention to your individual cat’s response and tolerance. With reasonable limits, catnip is generally safe for most cats to enjoy.

catnip spray product

The Verdict on Catnip

In moderation, catnip is generally considered safe and enjoyable for most cats. The active ingredient in catnip, called nepetalactone, binds to receptors in a cat’s nose and stimulates a response that can include sniffing, rolling, head shaking, and euphoric behavior (1). However, overindulging in catnip can lead to side effects like vomiting, diarrhea and hyperactivity (2). Responsible cat owners should be mindful of the dosage and frequency of catnip given to prevent negative effects.

The proper dosage for a cat is generally 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of dried catnip per 3-4 times a week (1). Giving too large a dose or allowing unlimited access can cause intestinal upset. Kittens under 6 months old may not respond to catnip at all. Additionally, around 20-30% of cats seem immune to its effects. For these cats, alternatives like catnip sprays can provide enrichment without risk of overdose.

Overall, catnip can be a safe way to enrich a cat’s environment and provide sensory stimulation. However, moderation is key. Monitoring dosage and frequency is important to minimize the potential for negative side effects.


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