What Is Catnip, and Is It Safe?

Catnip is very well known, but what’s less well known are the long term effects it might have. So what is catnip, and will it cause health effects in your cat?

What is catnip, and is it safe for cats? Catnip is a plant in the mint family that contains a chemical compound similar to a cat pheromone (nepetalactone). This compound causes intense effects in cats including euphoria, hallucinations and, potentially, sexual arousal. The effects typically last less than fifteen minutes. Catnip is not addictive to cats, in that it doesn’t cause a withdrawal effect when it is taken away. No negative health effects have been seen either by scientists or owners after cats experience catnip.

The guide below first details what catnip is, its place in the mint family, and where it’s from. We’ll then move on to discuss the observable effects of catnip on cats, why these effects likely occur, and what’s going on in your cat’s head.

What Is Catnip?

Catnip is a plant that belonds to the mint family (Labiatae). Its scientific name is Napeta cataria. It’s known around the world by many names, including catnep, catmint, catrup, catwort, nip, nep and field balm. It originally comes from Europe, but has since been introduced around the world.

While it’s best known for its effect on cats, catnip has also been used in folk remedies for centuries. It can be brewed as a tea, or used as a salve. It smells a lot like the mint you’re already familiar with.

What Kind of Plant is Catnip?

Catnip is a part of the mint family, which is a very, very large family. It contains 236 genera (small families of species) and around 7,000 species in total. Most of the plants in this family are highly aromatic; the various kinds of mint are, of course, included. But also part of the family are basil, rosemary, sage, marjoram, oregano, thyme and lavender.

While some of the plants in this family are small, catnip isn’t. It can grow to between 20 and 40 inches tall.

Where Is Catnip From?

Catnip is originally from Europe. It’s thought that it was brought over to the Americas during European settlement hundreds of years ago. It certainly enjoys conditions in the Americas, and can grow in gardens almost anywhere in the world. As well as being grown by people, it has been introduced to the wild almost everywhere and can be found in hedges, along roadsides, and near streams.

Is Catnip a Drug for Cats?

Drugs are variously defined, but most definitions roughly refer to a chemical substance of some kind that has a physiological effect on the body. That effect could be beneficial, as in the case of pain-relieving drugs, or it could be pleasurable as in the case of illicit drugs.

Catnip can definitely be defined as a drug in one way or another. It’s clear from a cat’s behavior after interacting with catnip that something happens to it, although the precise nature of the cat’s experience while ‘high’ isn’t known.

That being said, classifying catnip as a ‘drug’ may lead some people to incorrect assumptions about catnip and its use. Catnip is not addictive to cats, and does not have negative effects on a cat’s health. Cats will return to a catnip plant/source and ‘use’ it again the next day if it’s still present. But the hallmark of addiction is withdrawal, which is where the absence of a drug causes intense cravings and negative health effects. Catnip doesn’t do that to cats.

What Does Catnip Do to Cats?

There are four key stages to the cat’s catnip response. All cats that interact with catnip go through these stages, although perhaps not in the right order. Those stages are:

  1. Sniffing. The cat will first sniff and identify the catnip.
  2. Licking and chewing, along with head shaking.
  3. Chin and cheek rubbing. This is similar to marking behavior, i.e. where the cat rubs its facial pheromone-producing glands on something it wants to mark.
  4. Head-over rolling and body rubbing.

These effects are transient, meaning that your cat won’t keep rubbing and rolling on the catnip source for hours on end. They typically last 10-15 minutes, after which the cat will go back to normal. It may even become sleepy or hungry afterwards. The cat will then experience a refractory period, during which it won’t want to interact with the catnip again; this can last for two or three hours.

How Does Catnip Affect Cats?

The effects of catnip have been widely studied by scientists. According to the Canadian Veterinary Journal, “Compounds in catnip alter the behavior of wild and domestic cats, other mammals, and insects. The main constituent that attracts cats is … nepetalactone. Nepetalactone constitutes 70-99% of the essential oil of the catnip plant.”

The reason why nepetalactone has the effect that it does on cats is that it mimics the chemical structure of cat pheromones. Funnily enough, it’s thought that catnip’s effect on cats is a side-effect, and that they produce nepetalactone for its insect-repellent properties rather than the effect it has on cats. Catnip isn’t the only plant that produces this chemical compound, although it produces more than other plants do; Tatarian honeysuckle, for example. Other plants contain similar cat attractant compounds, such as silver vine and valerian root. Each of these plants affects all species of cat, including lions and tigers, not just housecats.

Does Catnip Make Cats Happy?

cat toys

Catnip definitely seems to make cats happy. This is something that’s difficult to measure scientifically, but from an owner’s point of view, it certainly seems to make cats happy.

One way in which this can be observed is that a cat that recently interacted with catnip becomes very playful. It will enjoy playing with its toys, chasing things, and pestering you for affection. It will tear off sprinting as fast as it can from the room, then run back in seconds later. If there are any other cats around, it will pester them to play with them too.

After 10-15 minutes, this will wear off, and your cat will stop responding to its toys as much as it was before.

Does Catnip Cause Hallucinations in Cats?

There is reasonable cause to think that it does.

Part of the reaction that cats have to catnip is to make sudden vocalizations. It’s thought that these may be in response to things the cat sees, which aren’t really there. It may paw at things or jump at things that aren’t there, too.

It has also been found that catnip produces hallucinations in people when smoked. The above paper from the Canadian Veterinary Journal states that “catnip produces visual and auditory hallucinations. It makes people feel happy, contented and intoxicated.” It was also supposedly used from the 1960s onwards to replace other popular drugs, or as a filler; apparently, people used to buy cat toys just to get at the catnip inside!

Don’t try that at home.

Is Catnip an Aphrodisiac?

It’s also thought that catnip can have an aphrodisiac effect on cats. That’s because of the similarity of certain catnip behaviors to heat behaviors. A 1972 paper on the effects of catnip says:

The similarity of cat­nip-induced rolling to estrous rolling indi­cated a relationship of catnip behavior toestrous behavior. In a study comparing estrous behavior and catnip-induced be­havior patterns, rubbing, rolling, and head shaking were found to be due specifically to the odor of catnip. Estrous behavior was similar to, but not the same as, catnip-induced behavior.

In plain English, this means that catnip produces many of the same behaviors in cats as when they’re in heat. This could indicate that catnip makes cats frisky, although it could also indicate that the cat is enjoying itself in other ways. These behaviors include love-biting, where cats experiencing catnip will bite gently on your hand if you offer it. Male cats may also experience erections after being around catnip. The paper, however, also says:

Catnip did not cause vulvar presentation, vocalization, or foot treading characteristic of estrus, and cats in estrus did not shake their heads as much as did cats exposed to catnip. Furthermore, the fact that male cats responded to catnip in the same manner as females was acknow­ledged as “an interesting problem,” but was not taken as evidence against a relationship between estrous behavior and the catnip-induced response. Mention was not made of the possibility that catnip may simply produce a natural form of pleasure behavior which is unrelated, or only partly related, to sexual stimulation.

So some behaviors are displayed, but not others. In other words, it’s difficult to tell without being a cat and experiencing catnip subjectively.

Are All Cats Affected By Catnip?

According to BMC Veterinary Research, not all cats experience catnip in the same way. Roughly 1/3 of cats have no response to catnip, something which has been found in multiple studies over time.

The reason for this isn’t clear, but it does seem to be hereditary. That means that catnip immunity, for want of a better term, can be passed down genetically from one generation to the next. It’s unclear whether there would be any evolutionary benefit to catnip immunity (or the lack of it).

Besides that, several factors seem to modulate the response a cat has to catnip. The age of the cat, the friendliness of the environment the cat is in, and how distressed or angry the cat is can all make the reaction less severe. There also seem to be other unknown factors at play that scientists have yet to identify.

Is Catnip Safe for Cats?

While catnip could be considered a drug for cats, that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe.

No studies and no owners have reported that their cats have suffered health effects after being around catnip. It doesn’t have the potential, say, to instantly stop your cat’s heart or to damage its brain. That applies both to short-term and long-term use.

Besides that, the effect of catnip last only up to 15 minutes. So even if you’re worried at your cat’s reaction for whatever reason, it doesn’t take long for your cat to return to normal.

If you’re worried that your cat has a unique adverse reaction to catnip, talk to a vet. The issue may be related to something else that your vet can diagnose. And if you don’t want your cat to experience its catnip reaction again, all you have to do is take the catnip away. Your cat won’t be able to get its paws on any more!