Why Are Cats Obsessed With Catnip?

It's basically cat weed 🌿

happy cat with catnip

Have you ever given your cat a catnip toy and watched him go absolutely nuts? Maybe it’s made you wonder: Why do cats go so crazy for catnip? And is there such a thing as too much catnip?

It turns out that there’s a natural substance in catnip that makes cats go wild for it, so all that rolling and rubbing is actually a normal physiological reaction.

The Dodo spoke to Dr. Stephanie Austin, a veterinarian at Bond Vet in New York City, to find out why cats are so obsessed with catnip.

What is catnip?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family and has been associated with cats for a long time (cataria even means “of a cat”).

“The leaves and stems of the catnip plant contain an oil called nepetalactone,” Dr. Austin told The Dodo. Nepetalactone oil is what makes cats go crazy for catnip.

While most people know catnip for its use in cat toys, it’s actually a pretty versatile plant. Catnip leaves can actually be used to make tea, and they can even be found in some bug sprays as an insect repellant.

What does catnip do to cats?

When nepetalactone enters a cat’s nose, it stimulates a sensory response in the brain that’s sort of similar to the way that drugs affect humans (though not exactly — more on that below).

“When cats smell nepetalactone, it stimulates special receptors that sense chemicals called pheromones,” Dr. Austin said. “The result is a kind of chemical reaction that gives the cat a sense of euphoria or overwhelming happiness.”

Catnip mimics cat pheromones, so when cats smell catnip, they can behave similarly to cats in heat — they’ll roll around, rub things, meow, zone out and might even become hyperactive or aggressive.

However, when cats eat catnip, it has the opposite effect to when they smell it, acting as a sedative.

The effects of catnip last around 10 minutes, and it can take around 30 minutes to a couple of hours for a cat to become susceptible to the effects of catnip again (during that time, catnip likely won’t have an effect on him).

Sensitivity to catnip also develops at around 3 to 6 months of age, so if you try to give your young kitten catnip, he might not have any reaction to it.

Some wild cats are sensitive to catnip too, including lions and tigers — so don’t bring any with you to the zoo!

Can cats have too much catnip?

Cats can’t overdose on catnip because it’s nontoxic. But if your cat goes a little too crazy while eating catnip, he could get an upset stomach.

If your cat eats too much catnip, symptoms can include vomiting and diarrhea.

But most cats can tell when they’ve had enough catnip and will stop eating well before they get sick.

Does catnip make cats high?

Catnip isn’t really the same as human drugs. While it seems like the euphoric response cats get from catnip is similar to a “high” that humans get from drugs, it’s actually not quite the same.

While cats are under the effects of catnip, they’re aware of their surroundings and aren’t hallucinating or in any kind of drug-induced reality. Cats just like how catnip makes them feel.

Catnip also produces the same response in cats every time they smell or eat catnip. This is different from human drugs because although the drug reaction in peoples’ brains will be the same, the physical response can vary between people (and even within the same person at different times). But when any cat interacts with catnip, you can pretty much expect the same response every time.

When a person takes a drug, it causes a reaction in their brain that makes them feel good, which usually makes them want more and can lead to an addiction. In comparison, cats don’t usually develop that drive since catnip is not addictive to cats. When a cat rubs his face or rolls in catnip, he’s not trying to get more of it — it’s just a response that’s triggered by the catnip.

Another difference between catnip and human drugs is that not all cats are affected by catnip, whereas drugs will cause a reaction in every person’s brain no matter what. Your cat’s genetics actually determine whether or not he’ll like catnip. A preference for it is an inherited trait, and only about 50 to 80 percent of cats are affected by catnip.

Catnip also doesn’t have any known long-term effects on cats.

How to give cats catnip

As with all treats, the best way to give your cat catnip is in moderation.

Catnip is a great way to train your cat — for example, to train him to come or even to fetch. You can put catnip on your cat’s bed, toys, a scratching post or a litter box to get him to use them.

You can also give your cat catnip toys to keep him entertained.

These toy catnip fish received The Dodo’s Paw of Approval, and you can get them from Amazon for $11.77.

(Note that dried catnip can lose its potency over time, so you should store it in the freezer to keep it fresh.)

What if my cat doesn’t like catnip?

Not all cats will respond to catnip.

If your cat doesn’t like catnip, don’t worry — there are plenty of catnip alternatives you can try, including these:

  • Silver vine
  • Valerian root
  • Tatarian honeysuckle
  • Catmint
  • Non-scented toys (your cat might just not be scent motivated)

To test these out, you can get this catnip alternative variety box from Amazon for $29.93.

Can humans have catnip?

While there’s not a ton of scientific research on the effects of catnip on humans, there are some potential health benefits of consuming catnip and applying it topically.

Catnip has actually been used in human medicine for a long time, particularly for its sedative effects, though its effectiveness is mostly anecdotal. It may also help with headaches.

It has also been used as a traditional medicine to heal toothaches since catnip has antifungal and antimicrobial properties that can help with infection.

Here are some of the best ways to take advantage of catnip’s health benefits for yourself:

  • Make tea from the dried leaves or flowers. You can even buy tea that’s already prepared from catnip. (You can also try sharing some with your cat once it’s cool!)
  • Use catnip essential oil in a diffuser or apply it to your forehead for a headache. (Cats should stay away from essential oils.)

Keep in mind that you shouldn’t use catnip if you’re allergic to mint, since it’s part of the mint family. And as much as it might remind you of a certain other plant, you definitely shouldn’t smoke catnip.

So there’s a reason most cats go crazy for catnip, and it’s OK for you to give your cat catnip as a regular toy or treat. Just don’t let your cat go too crazy.

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