Should You Get Your Cat High? The Ethics of Catnip

What is Catnip and How Does it Affect Cats?

Catnip is a plant in the mint family that contains a chemical called nepetalactone. When cats smell or ingest catnip, the nepetalactone binds to receptors in their nose and stimulates a response that affects their behavior. According to the experts at Scientific American, catnip contains an essential oil that triggers “essentially a harmless euphoric response” in cats when inhaled or consumed (

Not all cats are affected by catnip. Studies show that the response is hereditary, with approximately 70-80% of cats exhibiting a reaction. For those cats sensitive to catnip, the nepetalactone causes a temporary feeling of euphoria, making the cat excited, playful, and sometimes overly affectionate. The effects usually last between 5-15 minutes before the cat loses interest.

Normal Catnip Reactions

The typical reaction to catnip begins when cats detect its odor, usually by sniffing it. According to Cat Behavior Associates [1], catnip contains a chemical called nepetalactone that binds to receptors in a cat’s nose. This sends signals to the brain that trigger a euphoric response.

Common reactions to catnip include playful behavior like rolling around, flipping, and rubbing on the catnip. Cats may also meow excitedly or gently attack the source of catnip. According to the Humane Society [2], this giddy behavior typically lasts between 5 and 15 minutes before the cat loses interest.

So in summary, catnip induces a temporary euphoric state in cats that is characterized by playfulness, vocalizations, and generally excited behavior. The effect wears off relatively quickly once the initial reaction has run its course.

Is Catnip Addictive?

cat rolling euphorically in a pile of catnip

While catnip may cause euphoric effects in cats, it is not chemically addictive like some drugs are for humans. The active chemical in catnip, called nepetalactone, binds to receptors in a cat’s nose and stimulates sensory neurons that give cats a pleasant high feeling for 5-15 minutes before wearing off (1).

There is no evidence that catnip causes chemical dependency or withdrawal symptoms in cats. However, some cats seem to crave the temporary high and will return to catnip toys frequently. This is likely due to enjoying the euphoric sensations rather than addiction. It is comparable to humans who crave chocolate or other treats that stimulate pleasure centers in the brain.

As with any treat, catnip should be given in moderation. While not chemically addictive, excessive catnip may cause overstimulation or lethargy when the high wears off. Monitoring your cat’s reaction and limiting access can prevent overindulgence (2). Overall, catnip is considered very safe for recreational enjoyment in most cats.

Benefits of Catnip for Cats

Catnip provides many benefits for cats when used appropriately. The active ingredient in catnip is called nepetalactone, which binds to receptors in a cat’s nose and induces a response [1]. Two main benefits of catnip for cats are providing exercise/entertainment and relieving anxiety.

Catnip can stimulate cats to play, which provides exercise and entertainment. When exposed to catnip, most cats will start rolling around, rubbing against it, and energetically playing. This type of playful behavior allows cats to release pent up energy and engage their natural hunting instincts in a safe manner. The exercise from catnip play is especially beneficial for indoor cats.

Catnip also has a soothing, calming effect on cats that can relieve anxiety. Studies show nepetalactone acts as a feline attractant and causes a temporary euphoric state [2]. This pleasant state can reduce stress and anxiety in cats. The relaxing effect helps cats cope with stressful situations and environments.

cat lying calmly on a windowsill with catnip nearby

Potential Risks of Catnip

While catnip is generally considered safe for feline consumption, there are some potential risks with overindulgence. According to PetCareRx, eating too much catnip “can cause gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea and vomiting”1. ASPCA also warns that large amounts of catnip can lead to an upset stomach2. This is because catnip contains an oil called nepetalactone that can irritate a cat’s digestive system if consumed in excess.

Another concern with overindulgence in catnip is abnormal behavior in some cats. Hill’s Pet Nutrition explains that “eating, licking or chewing catnip makes some hyper; others become aggressive; and some react very little at all”3. The aggression and hyperactive behavior results from eating large doses of catnip. So monitoring your cat’s consumption is advisable.

Overindulgence can also cause short-term lethargy in some cats after the initial giddy reaction wears off. According to PetMD, “once the initial reaction has worn off, your cat might feel the aftereffects, which include sleepiness and lethargy.”4 So it’s important not to continually provide catnip if your cat is showing these aftereffects.

In summary, potential risks of overindulging in catnip include gastrointestinal upset, aggression, hyperactivity, and lethargy in some cats. Moderation is key when giving your cat catnip.


Proper Use of Catnip

When giving catnip to your cat, it’s important to use it properly and in moderation. The key things to keep in mind are:

    person sprinkling a small pinch of dried catnip

  • Give catnip in small amounts. Offering too much at once can cause overstimulation.
  • Use only organic, high-quality catnip. This reduces the risk of pesticides or other contaminants.
  • Don’t force catnip on cats unwilling to try it. Let them discover it at their own pace.
  • Offer dried catnip loose or in toys. Sprinkling a pinch in a paper bag or stuffed mouse makes a fun toy.
  • Avoid giving catnip daily. Using it 1-2 times per week prevents fatigue or disinterest.
  • Stop giving catnip if signs of distress or aggression emerge. Monitor your cat’s reactions.

As explained by Petmate Academy, “Dried catnip is a versatile product that can be used in almost every way imaginable. Try placing the herb onto your cat’s favorite toy, scratching post, bed, or pillow to encourage play or relaxation” (source). Moderation and organic quality are key when using catnip to enrich your cat’s life.

Ethical Considerations

Giving catnip to cats is generally considered ethical if certain guidelines are followed.[1] Owners should get informed consent from their cat before introducing catnip. This means paying attention to the cat’s reaction and not forcing catnip if the cat shows disinterest or negative reactions. Catnip should be given to provide enrichment and positive experiences for the cat, not just for the owner’s amusement.

Owners should closely monitor their cat’s reaction to catnip for any concerning signs like aggression or depression. Most cats enjoy catnip and have a harmless euphoric reaction. However, some cats may become overstimulated or anxious. If negative reactions occur, catnip should be permanently discontinued for that cat.[2] With proper informed consent and monitoring, giving catnip can provide cats with positive enrichment and is generally considered ethical.

Owner Best Practices

When giving catnip to your cat, there are some best practices owners should follow:

First, consult your veterinarian to make sure catnip is safe for your specific cat. Some cats may have pre-existing conditions that make catnip inappropriate.

When first introducing catnip, start with very small amounts and supervise your cat closely. Give them access to more as you gauge their reaction. According to, giving too much catnip can cause overstimulation or upset stomachs in some cats [1].

owner closely supervising as cat plays with catnip toy

During playtime with catnip, always directly supervise your cat. Do not leave them alone with catnip toys. Make sure they don’t ingest any of the plant material, which can cause vomiting or diarrhea [1].

Stick to giving catnip in moderation, as an occasional treat. Overuse can make the effects wear off over time.

With proper precautions, catnip can be an enjoyable experience for cats. Follow vet recommendations and start slowly to keep your cat happy and healthy.

Alternatives to Catnip

While catnip is enjoyable for many cats, there are other options to provide enrichment if catnip is not ideal. Some alternatives to consider include:

Cardboard boxes – Simple cardboard boxes can provide hours of entertainment and exercise for cats who enjoy crawling inside, scratching, and playing hide and seek. Rotating new boxes periodically can help keep cats engaged.

Feather toys – Lightweight feather toys that cats can bat, chase, and pounce on are a favorite for stimulating their natural hunting instincts. Be sure any feather toys are cat-safe with secure attachments.

Laser pointers – Laser pointers allow owners to turn any room into an interactive playground and stimulate cats’ prey drive in a safe manner. Limit laser play to 10-15 minutes at a time to prevent obsessive behavior.

Pheromone diffusers – Synthetic pheromones mimicking cat facial pheromones can help relieve stress and anxiety. Diffusers with feline facial pheromones provide an ambient calming effect without any herbal or chemical substances.

Providing a variety of enriching toys and activities can satisfy a cat’s needs for play and stimulation without relying solely on catnip. It’s ideal to rotate through different items to prevent boredom.


Catnip can be an ethical supplement for cats if used properly under supervision. The majority of cats enjoy catnip and react positively with playful and silly behavior. While it should be given in moderation, it does not appear to be addictive or harmful. Providing catnip-filled toys or treats is an enriching experience owners can safely share with their cats.

With some basic precautions, catnip can be an ethical way to bond with cats and stimulate their natural behaviors. While a minority of cats may react negatively, proper supervision allows owners to withdraw access if any concerning reactions develop. Using high-quality catnip from reputable sources can also reduce risks.

Overall, the preponderance of evidence indicates catnip’s effects are temporary, mild, and harmless for most cats. Owners simply need to exercise common sense and monitor their cat’s reaction. Given in the right amounts and context, catnip can be an ethical supplement that provides cats enjoyment and owners valuable interaction time.

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