Does Catnip Make Cats Hyper or Calm? The Surprising Truth About This Herb

What is catnip?

Catnip, known botanically as Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae). It is a short-lived perennial herb that grows wild in parts of Europe, Asia, and North America. The stems are typically square and bear oppositely arranged, toothed leaves that have a minty aroma when crushed. The plant produces spikes of small, tubular white or lavender flowers.

Catnip grows up to 3 feet tall and has grayish-green foliage. The leaves are heart shaped with scalloped edges and covered in small hairs. When mature, the plant produces the chemical nepetalactone which gives catnip its characteristic minty scent and flavor.

Active Chemical in Catnip

The active chemical in catnip that causes a reaction in cats is called nepetalactone. Nepetalactone is an organic compound that is part of the terpenes chemical class and belongs to the iridoid subclass. It is found in the essential oil of catnip plants (

When cats detect nepetalactone, it binds to receptors in their vomeronasal organ, which is part of their olfactory system. This organ detects pheromones and other chemical stimuli. The vomeronasal organ triggers a response that researchers believe mimics feline socio-sexual behaviors and responses to cat pheromones (

Catnip effects on cats

Most domestic cats react to nepetalactone, the chemical compound in catnip that causes a response. When cats smell or ingest catnip, the nepetalactone binds to receptors in the cat’s nose and stimulates a response. This causes a variety of behaviors in cats including sniffing, licking, chewing, head shaking, and rolling. According to the ASPCA, around 50-66% of cats are affected by catnip, with the response peaking around 5-15 minutes after exposure then wearing off after about 30 minutes.1

cat rolling around and playing with catnip

Research has shown that nepetalactone is structurally similar to feline “sex pheromones” and binds to scent receptors in the nose triggering the typical catnip response. Sniffing catnip leads to stimulating nerves that trigger activity in the brain’s “pleasure center” causing the euphoric behaviors cats display.2 So catnip acts as a stimulant inducing pleasurable feelings rather than sedating them.

Catnip as a stimulant

The active chemical compound in catnip that causes behavioral effects in cats is called nepetalactone. This compound binds to olfactory receptors in a cat’s nose and is then absorbed into the bloodstream. Nepetalactone causes an excitatory neurological response in cats.

When a cat inhales nepetalactone, the compound acts as a stimulant, increasing the cat’s activity level and inducing states of euphoria and playfulness. Cats may exhibit behaviors like rubbing, rolling, leaping, and chasing imaginary prey after exposure to catnip. Increased purring, excitability, and energy are also commonly seen.

Research indicates that between 50-70% of cats exhibit a stimulant response when exposed to catnip, which typically lasts between 5-15 minutes before subsiding. Some cats may grow accustomed to the effects of catnip over time.

Overall, nepetalactone binds to receptors in cats’ brains that trigger a temporary stimulant effect, causing a state of hyperactivity, playfulness, and euphoria when inhaled. The response typically lasts for several minutes before wearing off.

Catnip as a depressant

After the initial excited reaction to catnip, it can actually have a sedative effect on cats. The active chemical nepetalactone causes a stimulant response at first, but then binds to cats’ opioid receptors to produce a calming effect [1]. This is why cats often relax and lounge around after reacting to catnip, instead of continuing to act hyper and energetic.

cat relaxing after initial catnip reaction

The sedative qualities of catnip help calm cats down when they are anxious or stressed. Sniffing, licking, or eating catnip can induce a state of relaxation and contentment in cats. It causes a temporary mellow mood before they return to their normal energy level. The soothing properties of catnip allow it to be used as a relaxation aid for high-strung cats.

So while catnip is known for making cats go crazy at first, its depressive action afterwards can have a valuable calming effect. Cat owners often use catnip toys or treats to help relax anxious cats that are agitated or overstimulated.

Differences in catnip response

Not all cats react to catnip. According to PetMD, around 50-70% of cats respond to catnip, while the other 30-50% seem immune to its effects1. Researchers aren’t sure why some cats react and others don’t, but genetics likely plays a role. For cats that do respond to catnip, the response can vary from mild interest to wildly euphoric. Some signs a cat is responding to catnip include rolling around, pawing at the catnip, shaking their head, or showing a playful increase in activity.

some cats more sensitive to catnip than others

Kittens typically don’t respond to catnip until around 6 months of age1. Experts believe kittens younger than this don’t yet have a fully developed response in their brain to nepetalactone, the chemical in catnip that causes the stimulant reaction. However, some kittens may show a response earlier while others may not respond until closer to 1 year old. The age range is variable between cats.

Catnip effects on humans

Unlike in cats, catnip does not produce psychoactive effects in humans. The chemical nepetalactone that causes the euphoric reaction in cats does not appear to have the same effect on the human nervous system (

While catnip will not get humans high, some people do report mild sedative effects from the herb. The relaxing qualities of the volatile oil may produce a calming sensation similar to chamomile tea. Other reported effects in humans include headache relief and a sensation of giddiness (

Overall, catnip does not have any major psychoactive impacts on humans. Some people may experience slight sedative or relaxing effects from the compounds in the plant.

Other uses for catnip

Catnip has some other common uses beyond its effects on cats:

catnip tea and catnip toys

Many cat toys are filled with dried catnip. The scent attracts cats to play with the toys. Cat owners often rub or sprinkle catnip on toys to entice their cats to play. The stimulating effect of catnip makes cats excited to play and interact with the toys (source).

Some humans use catnip tea as a folk remedy. Catnip tea has been used to treat conditions like insomnia, anxiety, headaches and digestive issues. However, there is limited scientific evidence for the efficacy of catnip tea in humans (source). The sedative effect of catnip’s chemical nepetalactone could potentially help relieve stress and anxiety.

Potential risks of catnip

While catnip is generally considered safe for cats when used appropriately, there are some potential risks to be aware of. The main active chemical in catnip, called nepetalactone, can cause mild side effects if cats are exposed to very large doses. According to PetCareRx, ingesting excessive amounts of catnip may lead to vomiting or diarrhea in some cats.

Another potential risk is increased aggression in certain cats. The stimulating effects of catnip don’t affect all cats the same way. While most cats become more playful and energetic, some may become more aggressive after exposure to catnip, especially toward people or other pets. This is an uncommon response, but it’s important to monitor your cat’s behavior closely when first introducing catnip.

Overall, catnip is not considered toxic or poisonous to cats when used responsibly in moderation. It’s non-addictive and harmless for most cats. But large amounts may cause gastrointestinal upset, and aggressive responses are possible in some cats. Limiting catnip exposure, supervising use, and observing initial reactions can help minimize risks (PetCareRx). As with any supplement or treat, it’s best to consult your veterinarian about the appropriate use of catnip for your pet.


In summary, catnip contains an essential oil called nepetalactone that activates receptors in a cat’s nose and induces a response that includes sniffing, licking, chewing, head shaking, and rolling around erratically. The initial reaction looks similar to a stimulant drug, causing excitation and frenetic activity. However, this is followed by a calmer stage resembling a sedative drug, where the cat relaxes and may become sleepy. So catnip has both stimulant and depressant qualities depending on the phase of the response. The effects typically last between 5-15 minutes before subsiding. Most house cats enjoy catnip and react strongly to it when consumed, smelled, or rolled on. But a minority are not affected by it at all. For humans, catnip does not produce the same stimulant reaction but can have a mild relaxing effect when drank as tea. Overall, catnip is a safe and seemingly enjoyable herb for domestic cats when used responsibly.

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