What is Catnip and How Does It Work?

What is Catnip and How Does It Work?

by Scritch

Notorious for making cats either go crazy or completely chill out, catnip is a plant coveted by many frisky felines. What exactly is it about catnip that causes these reactions and why do cats go nuts for catnip? At a glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly special about the herb. Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial and a member of the mint family, and its oils act as an effective insect repellent (but to most cats, it’s pretty spectacular). 

What happens when a cat is given catnip?

When the leaves or stems are bruised, catnip releases an oil called nepetalactone which interacts with a cat’s nasal tissue. It is thought to trigger feline pheromone receptors, resulting in behaviors similar to those of females in heat. Essentially, cats are reacting to an artificial cat pheromone.

The high your cat experiences when sniffing catnip is similar to that of marijuana or LSD. You may notice hyperactive behavior like rolling around on the floor, being extra vocal, or salivating. Your cat might rub her face or body on the herb in attempts to release more of the oil. The effects will typically last about 10 minutes and then wear off. 

Your cat might also take a nibble of catnip. When ingested, the effects of catnip are quite different, and it acts more like a sedative. Your sluggish cat will enjoy a zen moment of complete relaxation.

How does catnip affect different species? 

  • Cats: The response to catnip is hereditary and is believed to affect about 50-70% of domesticated cats. Even big cats in the wild like lions, tigers, and jaguars display similar reactions to when exposed to catnip. Kittens are not affected by catnip until they begin to reach sexual maturity around 6 months of age.
  • Dogs: Dogs do not experience catnip the same way cats do, but small amounts can be fed to a dog for a mild calming effect.
  • Humans: Aside from repelling insects, catnip can be brewed into an herbal tea which acts as a mild sedative similar to chamomile tea.

What happens if my cat eats or sniffs too much?

Catnip is natural and completely harmless. If your cat eats too much, she might throw some of it back up or it may cause diarrhea. But once it has passed, she’ll be back to normal. For cats that tend to eat too much, you can offer catnip tightly wrapped in a cloth so your cat can still enjoy it without the negative side effects.

Frequently sniffing catnip will cause exposure fatigue and your cat’s reaction will not be as pronounced. It is recommended to offer catnip only once every 2-3 weeks so she can fully enjoy it each time.