What Makes Humans Purr? The Secret Ingredient Behind Our Feline Fascination

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a herb from the mint family that has psychoactive effects on cats. Catnip contains nepetalactone, a compound that binds to olfactory receptors in cats’ noses and stimulates a euphoric response when smelled or consumed [1]. About 50-66% of cats are affected by catnip while kittens under 6 months old show little or no response [2]. Catnip promotes euphoria, playfulness, relaxation or sleepiness in sensitive cats. Effects last 10 minutes to an hour after exposure [1].

The intriguing psychoactive effects of catnip on cats have led some to speculate whether humans have an equivalent compound that induces a catnip-like response. While no definitive human equivalent exists, researchers have explored various compounds that may produce euphoric, arousing or calming effects in humans similar to how catnip affects cats.

Anatomy of Catnip

The active chemical compound in catnip that causes a response in cats is called nepetalactone. Nepetalactone is an organic compound that is classified as a bicyclic monoterpene (Wikipedia, 2022). It is found in the essential oil of the catnip plant (Nepeta cataria) and can be extracted through steam distillation (Wikipedia, 2022).

When cats sense nepetalactone, it binds to their olfactory receptors and stimulates a response that is similar to cat pheromones. This causes cats to exhibit behaviors like rubbing, rolling, licking, and head-shaking. The pheromone-like response is what gives catnip its strong appeal to domestic cats and some other felines (Sciencedirect, n.d.).

Human Sensory Systems

human nose structure diagram

Humans have multiple sensory systems that detect chemicals, including the olfactory, pheromone, and trigeminal systems. The olfactory system detects volatile odor molecules through odorant receptors in the nose and is responsible for our sense of smell. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, humans have around 350 functional odorant receptor genes, compared to around 1000 in mice. This indicates humans likely have a poorer sense of smell compared to many animals (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK200980/).

The vomeronasal organ (VNO) is an additional chemical sense organ that detects pheromones – chemicals that trigger social and reproductive behavioral responses between members of the same species. The presence and functionality of the human VNO is controversial, with some studies detecting VNO-like structures in fetal and adult humans while others do not. There is evidence that humans produce compounds that function as pheromones, but the effects are likely detected by the main olfactory system rather than a distinct VNO. For example, a study by Verhaeghe found exposure to female axillary secretions modulated mood, sexual arousal, and brain activity in other women (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3987372/).

The trigeminal system detects chemicals that cause sensations like cooling, warmth, and irritation. Cats likely have a more sensitive trigeminal system than humans to detect specific pheromones called feline facial pheromones.

Existing Research

Several studies have explored catnip-like effects in humans. One study published on Reddit found that some users considered cocaine to produce effects in humans similar to how catnip affects cats, inducing a temporary “high” state (https://www.reddit.com/r/NoStupidQuestions/comments/n11t11/what_would_be_the_human_equivalent_to_a_cats/).

Additionally, research on the website Quora indicated that green olives may produce catnip-like responses in humans. Green olives contain isoprenoids, which are chemically similar to nepetalactone – the active compound in catnip (https://www.quora.com/What-drug-has-the-most-similarities-in-visible-or-not-visible-effects-on-humans-as-catnip-has-on-cats).

While more controlled studies are needed, these initial findings suggest some promising avenues for identifying catnip equivalents in humans.

Candidate Compounds

Research has identified some candidate compounds that may produce catnip-like effects in humans. The main psychoactive chemical in catnip is called nepetalactone. This organic compound acts on receptors in the cat’s brain and produces a marijuana-like high that lasts around 10-15 minutes [1]. While nepetalactone doesn’t seem to produce the same intoxicating effects in humans, some anecdotal reports indicate it can cause mild relaxation. Other terpenes and chemicals in catnip may also contribute to the high cats experience.

chemical structure of nepetalactone

Some researchers speculate that another compound called actinidine could be closer to a “human catnip.” Actinidine produces euphoric sensations in cats and humans when inhaled. However, more research is needed to fully understand actinidine’s effects and safety profile. Overall, no existing compound perfectly mimics catnip’s effects in both species, but compounds like nepetalactone and actinidine provide clues about the types of chemicals that may someday lead to a true “human catnip.”

Anecdotal Reports

There are many first-hand accounts online describing catnip-like effects from various compounds in humans. On Reddit forums and other discussion boards, people have reported feeling euphoric, relaxed, and “high” after smelling or consuming catnip. The active chemical in catnip, called nepetalactone, is known to bind to opioid receptors in the cat brain, producing a drug-like effect. Some people speculate that nepetalactone may also bind to opioid receptors in the human brain, albeit to a lesser degree. Anecdotal reports describe the sensation as mild and short-lived, lasting about 5-10 minutes when smelling catnip. Consuming catnip tea produces longer effects, with some reporting feeling “mellow” for up to 1-2 hours.

person smelling catnip

There are also accounts of people achieving a catnip-like high from smoking or vaporizing the leaves, buds, and flowers of the cannabis plant. The active cannabinoids in cannabis essentially work in the same way that nepetalactone does for cats, by binding to receptors in the brain responsible for pleasure, relaxation, and pain relief. However, cannabis use poses risks of addiction and long-term side effects that are not present with catnip consumption.

While anecdotes suggest some people may experience catnip-like sensations, larger scale studies are needed to determine the mechanisms, safety, and prevalence of these effects in humans.


Difficulties in finding a true equivalent: One of the main challenges in identifying a human equivalent for catnip is the fact that human and feline biology differs significantly. Compounds that induce a particular response in cats do not necessarily induce the same response in humans. Several key differences between the two species make finding an exact human equivalent for catnip difficult:

– Difference in olfactory systems – A cat’s sense of smell is far more sensitive than a human’s. Compounds that stimulate feline olfactory receptors may not have the same effect on human receptors.

– Difference in brain structure/chemistry – The rewarding neurological effects of catnip appear to be unique to cats. Catnip triggers receptors in a cat’s brain that are not present in the human brain.

– Differences in metabolism – The way cats and humans metabolize compounds can differ greatly. Catnip may break down differently in the two species.

– Lack of research – Very few studies have systematically analyzed the effects of catnip compounds on humans. More research would need to be conducted to determine if any parallels exist.

Reasons responses may differ between species: Beyond biological differences, there are other reasons why catnip elicits a very specific response in cats that may not parallel any human experience. These include:

– Instinctual/evolutionary factors – Catnip induces a response that mimics feline territorial/mating behaviors. This reaction is likely rooted in innate feline instincts not present in humans.

– Limited recreational options – As captive domesticated pets, cats have limited exposure to environmental stimulation. Catnip may provide enrichment lacking in their environment.

– Individual differences – Not all cats respond to catnip. Similarly, any human reactions would likely vary based on individual differences.

– Context – Set and setting plays a big role in drug effects. The effects of catnip on cats occurs within a specific context that would differ from human recreational use.

Ethical Considerations

If a human equivalent to catnip is identified, there are important ethical considerations regarding its responsible use. As with any substance that can alter mood or perception, there is potential for abuse or overuse. According to sources on Reddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/NoStupidQuestions/comments/n11t11/), cocaine would be the closest equivalent to catnip in humans. Cocaine is a highly addictive drug with many negative side effects from prolonged use, so any catnip equivalent should be approached cautiously.

Additional research should look at the long-term impacts and risks associated with regular exposure to determine appropriate dosage and frequency guidelines (https://blog.scienceborealis.ca/). Any human testing or recreational use should be restricted until potential dangers are fully understood. There are also ethical concerns around marketing and promoting a mood-altering substance purely for profit without regard for public health. Responsible policies, age restrictions, and medical oversight should be implemented to prevent irresponsible use if a human catnip equivalent is commercialized.

While the idea of a legal and safe alternative to other recreational drugs is appealing, the wellbeing of individuals and communities should take priority over profits or popularity. Any human catnip substitute should be regulated and distributed with appropriate care to avoid substance abuse and addiction issues seen with existing drugs. More research is needed to determine if an ethical approach is possible.

Future Research

Much more research is needed to fully understand if there are compounds that produce effects in humans similar to how catnip affects cats. Some potential avenues for future research include:

Using imaging techniques like fMRI to compare brain responses in cats exposed to catnip versus humans exposed to candidate compounds. This could identify similarities in brain activation that may indicate comparable subjective effects.

Analyzing the genetics of olfactory receptors in cats versus humans to determine if there are differences that make cats sensitive to nepetalactone in catnip. Finding comparable receptors in humans could guide testing of compounds that may bind to those receptors.

brain scan image

Studying anecdotal reports of the effects of catnip tea, essential oil, or smoking the plant in humans. Surveys could help characterize the types of sensations people experience.

Testing purified or synthetic versions of nepetalactone and other catnip compounds on human volunteers. Possible effects on mood, anxiety, sleep, and autonomic arousal could be measured relative to placebo.

Conducting observational studies of cats and humans exposed to catnip. Behavioral ethograms coded by blinded observers could identify any overt similarities in reactions.

Overall, neurological imaging, genetics, self-reports, psychoactive testing, and behavioral observation all represent fruitful avenues for understanding catnip effects across species. However, any human testing must proceed cautiously and follow ethical guidelines to ensure participant safety.


Summary of current knowledge: While there are numerous anecdotal reports of plant-derived compounds that trigger physiological and psychological effects in humans akin to how catnip affects cats, the scientific understanding of what constitutes a true “human equivalent of catnip” remains incomplete. Key candidate compounds like nepetalactone and actinidine, while exhibiting some intriguing effects in preliminary studies, do not induce a universal response comparable to that of catnip in cats. Our current knowledge about human sensory systems and plant chemistry suggests plausible pathways for identifying and assessing catnip-like compounds. However, significant research gaps exist, especially regarding the specific neurological mechanisms involved.

More research needed: Further studies isolating, synthesizing, and testing individual phytochemicals are needed to definitively pinpoint if any single compound produces a catnip-like effect in a majority of humans. Controlled experiments assessing physiological and psychological responses will be essential, while considering individual differences in metabolism. Multiple disciplines, including botany, neuroscience, pharmacology, and psychology, will need to collaborate. Progress will require striking an ethical balance between scientific discovery and responsible research practices. With more interdisciplinary research combining plant biochemistry, neuroimaging, behavioral science, and bioethics, the tantalizing possibility of identifying a true “human equivalent of catnip” may become reality.

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