Why Does Catnip Make My Cat Go Crazy?

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10 min read
10 min read

Updated - Apr 12th, 2024

Key points
  • Cats are obsessed with catnip because one of its components has a pheromone-like effect, making felines feel frisky and goofy.
  • Catnip is neither harmful nor addictive for cats who get “high” on the plant, but not all cats will react to it in the same way.
  • You can serve catnip to your cat in a variety of forms, from treats to toys and tea.

Some kitties are known to go absolutely nuts for catnip. Just one or two whiffs, and even the most aloof cat can turn playful, silly, and (dare we say) affectionate. But one in three cats will respond to the plant like it’s a brand-new toy you dropped too much money on — in other words, they ignore it entirely.

So what exactly is in this magical plant that seems to chill out some cats, but not others? It all comes down to a chemical compound called nepetalactone, which mimics the effects of a female cat “in heat.” Catnip can affect both female and male cats, though, so it’s not exactly the same thing.

Read on to reveal how catnip works on the feline brain, and why some cats seem to not care about it at all. Spoiler alert: if your kitty turns up their nose at catnip, you can try silver vine for a similar experience. We’ll also discuss the best methods of giving your cat catnip and the potential risks and benefits associated with the plant.

What is catnip?

Catnip, scientifically known as Nepeta cataria, is an herb that belongs to the mint family. It is native to Europe and Asia, but you’ll also find it all across North America. It’s much more than a “cat drug” — throughout human history, this plant has had medicinal, culinary, gardening, recreational, and even spiritual uses.

You can recognize catnip by its square stems, zig-zag-edged fuzzy leaves, and small pale lavender flower clusters. It’s non-toxic to humans, and has been used in aromatherapy and tea for its mild sedative effects. 

In medieval times, catnip was used to treat a variety of ailments, including digestive issues and insomnia. Catnip tea is still consumed by some humans for its supposed calming properties — but it’s much more popular among felines.

While its uses in herbal medicine are not widely supported by scientific evidence, we know for sure that catnip is a great natural insect repellent, which may explain why wild cats started rubbing up on the plant in the first place.

Why do cats love catnip so much?

Benefits of catnip for cats: enrichment, insect repellent, stimulation and energization, relaxation, engagement, distraction from destructive scratching, stress relief

The plant’s leaves and stems contain a compound called nepetalactone, which triggers a euphoric response in cats. Chewing or crumpling the catnip leaves will release a greater amount of nepetalactone than simply sniffing it, so some cats will go as far to eat or lick the leaves. For the most part, though, you can find cats either rubbing on the plant in the wild or rolling around in the dried stuff at home.

Nepetalactone has a pheromone-like effect, giving cats the euphoric or playful feeling of being in heat. While “heat” is usually used to describe sexual arousal in female cats, both male and female cats react similarly to catnip (and they’re unlikely to hump your leg like a dog).

The overall effect is a cat who behaves like a roly-poly bug or a toddler on a sugar high — kitties may start rolling, flipping, licking, head-shaking, and pouncing on thin air upon interacting with catnip. Some cats become unusually affectionate after exposure to catnip, while others turn into energetic goofballs.

The entertaining effects don’t last for long. Cats tend to lose interest after playing with catnip for 10 minutes or so, and then they’re immune to it for about 30 minutes post-play session. 

Some cats won’t react to catnip at all, which is no reason to worry. Despite the feline-friendly name of the herb, between 20–40 percent of cats lack the genetic disposition that makes them love the plant so much.

When catnip is used in moderation, there’s nothing to worry about. Although the plant does create a mild “high” for your kitty, it is neither harmful nor addictive. The effects of catnip tend to be gentle and short-lived.

If your feline friend ingests too much catnip, however, they may get an upset stomach. This can happen with dried or fresh catnip (more often the latter, as it is more concentrated), but most cats know to stop when they’ve had enough. 

To be clear, there’s no such thing as a catnip hangover — if anything, your cat will be a little sleepy and subdued afterwards. 

So yes, catnip is definitely safe for most cats when used in moderation. If you want to avoid overexposure, give it to your cat no more than once a week.

Which form of catnip should I give my cat?

Catnip is great for training and cat enrichment as it can get even the most notorious couch potatoes moving (as long as they have the gene for it). You can also use catnip as a reward for your pet after a visit to the vet or some other stressful event to relieve some of their tension.

When it comes to serving your cat catnip, you have multiple options:

  1. Fresh. It’s possible to buy fresh catnip or grow it yourself — the catnip plant is pretty robust (plant it in a pot, not a garden, or it’ll take over) and nice to look at. Catnip doesn’t smell great to humans, though, so consider yourself warned.
  1. Dried. You can buy dried loose catnip leaves and sprinkle them on the floor or scratching posts for your kitty to enjoy. Be sure to give your cats some space to roll around so they can enjoy the experience to the max!
  1. Sprays. Catnip sprays are a great alternative to dried catnip powder, which, frankly, can create a mess in your home.
  1. Toys. Soft catnip-filled toys are sure to become your cat’s favorite — and you can take them with you when you’re traveling with your feline friend.
  1. Treats. Wall balls, catnip bits, and other chewy and lickable treats are fantastic for spoiling your pet and entertaining them with catnip.
  1. Bedding. Refillable and washable catnip blankets are a thing. They can make cat beds more inviting, especially if your pet tends to ignore them and sleep in other random spots.
  1. Tea. You can also brew catnip tea for your cat and see if they like it. Simply pour boiling water over catnip leaves, wait for it to cool down, filter out the debris, and serve.

There’s no right or wrong way to give catnip to a cat — try out different methods and see what your feline companion prefers.

Do cats like the feeling of catnip?

How cats react to catnip (with cat illustrations): Relaxed, curious, rolling, goofy, excited

Yes, many cats enjoy the euphoric feeling triggered by catnip, even if it doesn’t get the same response from all cats. Even if humans stopped spoiling them with custom catnip toys, cats would probably seek out the plant anyway.

For instance, outdoor cats tend to find the plant on their own, sniffing their way to it. They’ll voluntarily smell the plant, lick it, or even roll around in it. (If you grow catnip in your garden, you may have to protect it until it gets big enough to survive the attention.) 

If you’ve seen an indoor cat react to catnip, you know they’re happy to indulge time after time. This likely indicates that they have only positive associations with the plant.

Can cats overdose on catnip?

No, cats can’t really overdose on catnip. They might get a bit overexcited if they have too much, but it won’t harm them (just watch out for claws and bites if they play too hard). Catnip is generally safe for cats in moderation, and they’ll eventually chill out when the effects wear off. Just keep an eye on them and make sure they don’t eat a huge amount, as it may create some digestive discomfort.

Similarly, there is no specific amount of catnip that is universally considered “too much,” but excessive exposure to catnip can make the cat less responsive to it. Think of it as a nice dessert that tastes better when served on special occasions. 

With that in mind, catnip toys and bedding are less intense in terms of nepetalactone exposure, so you can safely leave them available for your cat at all times. Some pet owners also make catnip tea for their anxious pets every day, as there’s no evidence that it can harm them in the long term.

Is catnip safe for humans?

Catnip affects humans differently than it does cats. While it’s not commonly enjoyed by humans nowadays, catnip tea may be used by alternative medicine practitioners and wellness gurus for its purported benefits. 

Here are some effects reported by people who have consumed or used catnip (remember, most of these findings aren’t backed by science):

  • Mild sedation. Catnip has a mild calming effect on some people, although it’s unclear whether it’s a placebo effect or a real chemical change. It’s sometimes used in herbal teas or aromatherapy for its relaxing properties. You may even find catnip supplements marketed for human “mood support and stress relief.”
  • Stress reduction. Inhaling the scent of catnip or using it in aromatherapy may reduce stress and anxiety in some individuals.
  • Mild euphoria. Some people report feeling a sense of mild euphoria or wellbeing when exposed to catnip, although this effect is not as pronounced in people as in cats. It might just be the pure joy of watching your cat go nuts.
  • Possible gastrointestinal benefits. Much like its cousin mint, catnip has been used traditionally to alleviate symptoms of digestive discomfort, such as gas or indigestion, in humans.
  • Insect repellent. Humans can certainly take advantage of catnip as a natural insect repellent by rubbing the leaves on themselves or using a catnip spray. Growing catnip in your garden can also help protect your plants from mosquitoes and other bugs.

It’s important to mention that the effects of catnip on humans can vary widely, and not everyone will experience these effects. Catnip is considered safe for most people when used in moderation, such as in herbal teas or aromatherapy. You definitely don’t want to smoke it, and you might want to cap your tea intake at one cup to avoid unpleasant side effects.

However, consumption of catnip isn’t recommended for pregnant women, as it may have uterine-stimulating effects. As with any herbal remedy, it’s a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional beforehand. 

But as far as second-hand spray goes, there’s no need to be worried about the exposure you’ll get from dishing out catnip to your furry friend.

Can cats be immune to catnip?

Around 70% of cats are receptive to catnip (cat stretching with quote bubble)

Yes, some cats can be immune to catnip’s effects. If your cat is indifferent to catnip, it is absolutely normal, and you have nothing to worry about. Catnip sensitivity is hereditary, and it’s estimated that about 20–40 percent of cats have no reaction to catnip at all.

Here’s why your cat might be uninterested in catnip:

  • Genetic variation. Just like people have different traits based on their genes, cats also have genetic variations that determine their response to catnip. Cats inherit their sensitivity or lack thereof from their parents.
  • Receptor sensitivity. The effects of catnip in cats are primarily mediated by receptors in their nasal tissue. Cats that do respond to catnip have specific receptors that bind to the nepetalactone compounds in catnip, triggering a reaction. Cats that don’t respond may have different receptor structures that don’t interact with catnip in the same way.
  • Age. Kittens and very young cats often do not respond to catnip until they are several months old. Sensitivity to catnip typically develops as they mature, and it’s unclear why. Senior cats may also be less interested. 
  • Environmental factors. External stressors or changes in a cat’s surroundings can sometimes affect their response to catnip. Cats that are anxious or stressed may not react as strongly, if at all.
  • Individual variability. Just like humans, cats have varying preferences and sensitivities for scents. Individual cats might simply have a more subdued response or some personal negative associations with catnip.

Keep in mind that whether or not a cat reacts to catnip has no bearing on their overall health or happiness. Cats that don’t respond to catnip can still enjoy a wide range of toys and activities.

Final nips

It’s a truly random coincidence that catnip, as well as some other plants, contains a compound similar to feline pheromones. And this coincidence is a fun one, as it allows us to watch our pets act weird over an unassuming plant. 

Try using catnip in play or training sessions with your cat to encourage more physical activity and enhance their mood, and you’ll probably have a bit more fun too when their silly side comes out. For more tips on training your cat, make sure to check out Pumpkin’s pet parenting blog.

Pumpkin Team

Pumpkin Team

Passionate Pet Experts & Parents
We are a team of writers, designers & product developers who all double as passionate (ok, obsessive) nerds of the pet world.
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