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Here's how catnip works as a recreational drug for cats

This article was medically reviewed by Sorin McKnight, DVM, a veterinarian at Wellborn Road Veterinary Medical Center in College Station, Texas. 
Cat laying on the ground next to a pile of catnip.
Eating catnip can relax your cat and make them sleepy.
sdominick/Getty Images

  • Catnip is an herb that has the ability to excite cats or calm them down.
  • When cats smell catnip, they may jump around excitedly and rub their bodies on the herb.
  • When cats eat catnip, they may drool and relax while feeling loopy and sleepy. 

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is an herb related to mint that grows in many different regions across the world. People originally drank catnip as a relaxing tea, but in modern times it's mainly used as a recreational drug for cats.  

Here's how catnip can affect your cat and how much you should give them.

What is catnip?

Catnip is popular among cat owners as a fun treat that can excite or calm cats. It can come in several different forms:

  • Loose catnip herb that cats can eat directly
  • Toys with catnip inside them, that cats can smell
  • Spray that you can apply to cat toys
  • Scratching posts that contain catnip inside
  • Treats that contain a small amount of catnip

Not all cats have a reaction to catnip — about 70% of cats carry a gene that's linked to the catnip response, says Mikel Delgado, PhD, Certified Cat Behavior Consultant at Feline Minds.

Catnip also doesn't work on kittens — "a cat has to hit puberty before they start to show a response, which is around 5 to 6 months of age," says Sarah Wooten, DVM, a veterinarian in private practice.

What does catnip do to cats?

Catnip has different effects depending on the individual cat and the way the cat takes the drug. "It either ramps cats up, or it mellows them out," Wooten says.

Here are the usual ways that catnip affects cats:

When cats smell catnip, "it tends to bind to receptors in the brain that trigger 'happy excitement'," says Wooten. They may show signs like:

  • Rubbing their heads and body on the herb/toy
  • Meowing or making other noises
  • Jumping around
  • Playing aggressively

When cats eat catnip, "it tends to do the opposite and causes cats to be chill," Wooten says. These symptoms can include:

  • Sleepiness
  • Purring
  • Drooling

"The behaviors only last about 10 minutes then gradually wear off. It may take up to an hour before they will respond to catnip again," says Kimberly Simmons, DVM, a veterinarian and CEO of Simmons Consulting Group

How does it work?

"The oil in catnip, nepetalactone, stimulates receptors in the nasal tissues, causing a response in the brain," Simmons says.

This response does one of two things:

1. It stimulates several areas in the brain, including the hypothalamus and amygdala, which are involved in regulating a cat's emotions. "As a result, they get 'high'," Wooten says.

2. "Nepetalactone may also mimic pheromones, which are chemicals that cats can detect in their snoots and make cats feel happy and safe," says Wooten.

Catnip can give your cat feelings of pleasure and happiness, Simmons says, and "it can also help calm your cat to relieve anxiety." Overall, the response to catnip depends on the cat.

How to give your cat catnip

If you use the loose herb, Wooten recommends starting with one teaspoon of dried or fresh catnip. You can also use catnip treats or catnip spray that provide their own dosage information on the label.

"It is suggested to use a little at a time so that you don't overstimulate the cat," Simmons says.

Catnip is generally safe and non-toxic, Simmons says, but it is possible to give your cat too much catnip. This can cause various symptoms, depending on how your cat takes the catnip.

  • Eating too much catnip can cause digestive upset like diarrhea.
  • Smelling too much catnip can cause dizziness or trouble walking.

It's okay to give your cat catnip every day, but "cats will stop responding after a time to catnip, so it's a good idea to put catnip toys away for at least a few hours to encourage your cat to indulge again," Delgado says.

Insider's takeaway

Catnip is an herb that you can use to either excite or calm your cat. You can get loose catnip, or buy catnip toys or spray. "Catnip can be enjoyable for a lot of cats, the best way to find out if your cat likes it is to give them some and carefully gauge their response," says Delgado.

Catnip is generally safe, but "just remember that because it does stimulate your cat, you want to give a little at a time to reduce the possibility of health issues," says Simmons.

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