The Secret Life of Catnip. What This Plant Really Does to Your Cat

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is an herb from the mint family, known for its intriguing effect on cats. The plant contains a chemical called nepetalactone, which is similar to pheromones produced by cats. When nepetalactone is inhaled or consumed, it can induce a temporary euphoric state in domestic and wild cats.

The use of catnip dates back at least 2000 years to ancient Egypt, where catnip was grown in gardens to attract cats. Egyptians observed the plant’s strange effects on cats and began using catnip for entertainment and ritual purposes. Even today, catnip continues to fascinate cat owners who enjoy providing it to their pets for enrichment and amusement.

Traditional Medicinal Uses

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) has been used as a medicinal herb for centuries, particularly as a relaxant and digestive aid.

An article on notes that catnip has been used in traditional folk medicine as a mild relaxant and sleep aid, helping promote restful sleep without causing sedation the next day. The herb contains compounds like nepetalactone that are thought to have a calming effect.

catnip used traditionally as a relaxant

Catnip has also been used to help relieve anxiety and nervous tension. Many herbalists recommend drinking catnip tea to promote relaxation during stressful times. The soothing, sedative nature of catnip may help quiet the mind and body.

As a digestive aid, catnip has been used to help relieve stomach upsets, gas, and bloating. Compounds in catnip are thought to help relax the gastrointestinal tract and relieve cramping or discomfort. Catnip tea has been consumed after meals as a digestive tonic.

While more research is still needed, these traditional uses indicate catnip’s potential as a natural way to promote relaxation, ease anxiety, and support healthy digestion.

Modern Scientific Research

Recent scientific studies have examined the effects of catnip and its active chemical nepetalactone on cats. A 2021 study published in Science suggests that nepetalactone activates cats’ opioid systems in a similar way to how heroin and morphine activate opioid systems in humans ( The researchers found that nepetalactone binds to μ-opioid receptors in cats’ brains, inducing a temporary euphoric state. This helps explain why most cats exhibit pleasure-seeking behaviors like rolling, head-shaking, and cheek-rubbing when exposed to catnip.

Other studies have looked specifically at catnip’s sedative effects. A 2017 study in BMC Veterinary Research tested cats’ responses to silver vine and valerian root, two plant species also known to induce euphoria in felines ( They found that nepetalactone binds to different receptor sites than the active compounds in silver vine and valerian, suggesting the sedative reaction has a distinct pharmacological pathway. More research is still needed to fully understand the neurotransmitters and nervous system mechanisms affected by catnip.

Catnip Tea

Catnip tea is made by steeping dried catnip leaves and flowers in hot water. It has a minty, herbaceous flavor. Catnip tea can be consumed hot or chilled into iced tea. Some of the purported benefits of drinking catnip tea include:

cat enjoying and rubbing on catnip toys

Relaxation – Compounds like nepetalactone in catnip are thought to have a soothing, sedative effect. Catnip tea has traditionally been used as a sleep aid and stress reducer. Some find the aroma itself to have a calming influence.

Digestion – As a member of the mint family, catnip may help relieve digestive issues like cramping, bloating, and gas in some people. It is considered a carminative herb.

Menstrual cramps – Catnip tea is used by some women to alleviate menstrual cramps and discomfort due to its antispasmodic effects.

Cold and flu – The anti-inflammatory properties of catnip may help relieve nasal congestion, sore throat, cough, and fever during colds and flu. It may also induce sweating to reduce fever.

However, potential side effects of drinking too much catnip tea include headaches, dizziness, and diarrhea. Pregnant women should avoid catnip tea due to its emmenagogue effects. As with any herbal supplement, it’s best to drink catnip tea in moderation.

Catnip Essential Oil

Catnip essential oil is extracted from the leaves and flowers of the catnip plant (Nepeta cataria) through steam distillation. The oil has a minty, herbaceous aroma. Catnip essential oil is known for its insect repellent properties and is commonly used to repel mosquitoes, cockroaches, flies and ants.

Some common uses for catnip essential oil include:

using catnip essential oil as insect repellent

  • Applying diluted oil to the skin as an insect repellent
  • Diffusing the oil in a room to repel mosquitoes and other insects
  • Adding a few drops to a spray bottle with water and using as an insect repelling spray
  • Mixing with carrier oils for a soothing massage oil

It is generally considered safe for topical use when diluted in a carrier oil. However, as with all essential oils, it should be used with caution and kept away from mucous membranes and eyes. Pregnant women should consult their doctor before using catnip essential oil.

According to AromaWeb, catnip essential oil is considered one of the more effective natural insect repellents among essential oils when used topically.

Catnip Capsules and Tinctures

Catnip capsules and tinctures are popular supplemental forms of catnip for human use. According to Betty’s Natural Foods LLC (, the recommended dosage for catnip capsules is 1-2 capsules taken 1-3 times per day. For tinctures, The Gardenix recommends 20-40 drops taken 1-3 times per day.

In terms of drug interactions, catnip can enhance the sedative effects of other herbs and medications. According to WebMD, it may interact with sedatives, anti-anxiety medications, and sleeping pills. Those taking any sedative medications should exercise caution with catnip supplements and consult a doctor first.

Other Catnip Products

In addition to being used as a tea, essential oil, or supplement, catnip is commonly utilized in several other products, especially for cats.

One of the most popular catnip products are catnip-filled cat toys. These often take the form of mice or balls filled with dried catnip. Cats will sniff, lick, and play with these toys which releases the catnip and triggers a response. Catnip toys provide mental stimulation and encourage playtime and exercise.

Catnip sprays are liquid formulations that can be sprayed on toys, scratching posts, bedding and more. The catnip aroma is released and absorbed into the material. This allows cat owners to add catnip to a variety of surfaces and objects around the home.

Some companies also produce catnip-infused lotions and grooming products intended to be rubbed on the cat’s body during petting or brushing. This helps distribute the catnip scent onto the cat’s fur and skin to elicit a response.

Overall, catnip products allow cat owners to provide natural stimulation and enjoyment for their cats through the unique reaction cats have to nepetalactone.

Safety and Side Effects

Overall, catnip is considered safe for most people when used appropriately. However, some potential side effects and safety considerations include:

pregnant woman caution about catnip

According to the NYU Department of Surgery, catnip acts as a uterine stimulant and thus should be avoided by pregnant women (source).

Catnip is generally considered safe for children, but parents should exercise caution with very young children who may be more sensitive to the effects (source).

Some people may experience mild side effects like nausea, headache, or dizziness when ingesting catnip. It’s recommended to start with small doses to assess tolerance.

Catnip should not be combined with sedative medications or other herbs with sedative properties as it can enhance their effects.

The typical recommended dose for catnip tea is 1-2 cups per day. For capsules or tinctures, follow label directions and start with the lowest suggested dose.

Excessive or long-term use of catnip is not recommended. As with any herb, periodic breaks from use are advised.

Those with health conditions should consult a doctor before using catnip medicinally.


Catnip has been used in traditional folk medicine as a sedative and for treating anxiety, but scientific research on its efficacy in humans is limited. Animal studies have demonstrated that catnip contains chemicals like nepetalactone that can have a sedative effect. One study found catnip reduced anxious behaviors in mice by interacting with neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine in the brain (WebMD).

Some early research shows catnip tea or essential oil may help promote relaxation and sleep. One small study found people who inhaled catnip essential oil reported feeling more relaxed. However, larger human trials are still needed to fully evaluate catnip’s effects on anxiety, sleep, and other conditions (WebMD).

Overall, current research on catnip in humans is very limited. More clinical studies are needed to determine the effectiveness and optimal dosing of catnip supplements like tea, oils, capsules or tinctures. As with any supplement, speak to your doctor before using catnip for any health purpose.


With a long history of traditional uses, catnip has been part of human culture for centuries. Now modern science is shedding light on its components and bioactive compounds, supporting some of the traditional medicinal uses. While most noted for its sedative and calming effects, catnip has also shown promise for treating digestive issues, anxiety, headaches, and more. Catnip products including tea, oil, capsules and tinctures harness these properties in different ways.

Catnip appears relatively safe for adults at typical doses. Potential side effects are mild and primarily gastrointestinal. The main precautions are for children and infants, as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women, who should avoid consuming catnip. More research is still needed, especially clinical trials on humans, to fully validate the various medicinal benefits of catnip.

Overall, catnip shows significant potential as a natural remedy, particularly for relaxation, stress relief, and sleep promotion. Many people enjoy the mild sensation it provides, either through drinking tea or using essential oil. When sourcing high quality catnip and not overconsuming, it can be a beneficial addition to an integrative approach to health and wellness.

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