Many people are familiar with the extreme response many cats show to the herb catnip. After sniffing catnip most kitties show frenzied excitement – rolling, rubbing, vocalizing, and even drooling, leading many to liken it to the effects drugs can have on people.
Until recently the mechanism underlying this response in members of the cat family was unknown, but recent research has demonstrated that it is caused by the release of substances within the body called endorphins that produce a ‘natural high‘.
In this article, we will discuss catnip, recent evidence for how it works, and what that means in terms of its safety and addictive nature for your cat.
What Is Catnip?
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb that is part of the mint family of plants, it is also known as catnip, catmint, and catwort. Catnip is native to parts of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and was introduced into North America with European settlement.
The plant grows up to 100cm (40 inches) tall, has square stems, grey-green leaves with coarse (toothed) edges, and small fragrant flowers that are pink or white and bloom from Spring through to Autumn.
Catnip and several other plants, such as silver vine, produce substances called iridoids which act as a defense against insects (either by directly repelling the insect pests, or attracting their parasites or predators). The specific cat-attracting compound in catnip is called nepetalactone.
There are several catnip-containing products available commercially for pets including toys, sprays, and oils. Catnip can also be grown at home and can be given to cats fresh or dried. It will lose potency over time, so to prolong the fun for your kitty it should be stored in sealed airtight containers between uses and can be frozen too.
What Is A ‘High‘?
‘Getting high’ means elevating your state of mind or consciousness to give a feeling of great excitement, well-being, and happiness. This is also known as ‘euphoria‘, and can be achieved by many means, but is often associated with the use of drugs.
What Effect Does Catnip Have On Cats?
Most cats respond to catnip by becoming hyperactive and excited when they encounter it, before becoming quiet and appearing chilled out (which has led to comparison with the effects of marijuana, and getting high in people).
Giving catnip to a cat usually results in them sniffing, licking, and chewing it, before frenziedly rubbing their heads, and bodies on it by repeatedly rolling over. Some cats will vocalize and dart about, leading to the suggestion catnip may cause hallucinations.
The effect is caused by cats smelling nepetalactone which is released by the plant, not by them eating it (although many cats will lick and eat it too).
The effects of catnip last for about 10 minutes, and it takes at least a couple of hours before the cat will respond to it again. Kittens do not begin to respond to catnip until they are at least 6-8 weeks old, and it often takes until 3-6 months of age to see a full response.
Only two-thirds of cats respond to catnip, whether they do or not is an inheritable trait. There is no clear link to the cat’s breed, sex, or color in predicting if they will respond or not.
Also Read: Can Cats Eat Catnip?
Does Catnip Make People High?
Can the answer to whether catnip is making cats high be found by examining its effects on people? Over the years people have used catnip for recreational and medicinal purposes by drinking it in tea, smoking, and chewing it. However, catnip usually produces sedating or calming effects in people, rather than the euphoric reaction seen in cats.
It has been used as a remedy for colic in babies, flatulence, headaches, anxiety, and as a tonic for pains. In the 1960s it was smoked as a filler or a substitute for marijuana and reported to cause visual and auditory hallucinations, but there is no evidence that cats experience hallucinations too.
Also Read: Best Calming Aid For Cats
How Does Catnip Make Cats High?
The response of cats to catnip has been likened to the behavior of female cats in heat (estrus). For many years it has been speculated that when cats sniff catnip the nepetalactone acts on areas of the brain (called the amygdala and hypothalamus) in a similar way to feline sexual pheromones, however, recent research has demonstrated an alternative explanation……
As we have already mentioned, several plants produce iridoid compounds to repel herbivorous insects. Nepetalactone produced by catnip, and nepalectol produced by silver vine, both cause the same characteristic euphoric reaction in cats. A recent study using silver vine has demonstrated the actual reason that these plants make cats appear high.
Exposure to the chemical nepalectol in silver vine caused levels of â-endorphins in the cats’ blood to dramatically increase. â-endorphins act via the body’s opioid system to induce pleasure and relieve pain. The opioid receptors which are triggered by endorphins are also the sites where drugs like morphine and heroin act.
The study further confirmed nepalectol was affecting cats via the opioid system by using an opioid-blocking drug (naloxone) before exposure to the plant. After cats received naloxone they no longer reacted to the silver vine. Therefore it can be concluded that these cats are experiencing a high – but driven by their own natural endorphins!
Does Catnip Make Wildcats High Too?
As well as the majority of our domestic cats enjoying catnip, many other members of the cat family do too. Wild large cats such as leopards, jaguars, lynxes, and lions have been shown to react euphorically to catnip and silver vine, however, tigers are usually poorly responsive to it.
There is thought to be an evolutionary advantage for felines that are attracted to catnip and similar plants like silver vine. When they rub insect-repelling iridoid chemicals on plants chemicals such as nepetalactone are transferred onto their fur (especially around the head and neck area).
An experiment demonstrated a large reduction in the number of mosquitoes landing on cats after they had rolled in silver vine, so this behavior in cats (as well as being pleasurable) also provides them with protection from biting insects, which is very useful considering the tendency of many wildcats to stalk prey through long grasses.
Is Catnip Safe?
The good news for cats everywhere is that catnip is considered safe! Some care is needed, however, because if cats eat large amounts of catnip it can cause vomiting and diarrhea – so avoid your cat consuming too much of it.
The response to catnip is not dependent on the dose – just enough catnip is needed to stimulate the body’s â-endorphin release, and the reaction does not alter if more is sniffed by the cat after that point. This means that it is impossible to fatally overdose on catnip (in contrast with the administration of opioid drugs).
The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and the International Society of Feline Medicine (ISFM) also consider catnip to be safe as their Feline-Friendly Handling Guidelines suggest using catnip-containing toys to help rehearse vet visits and examinations at home, and in cat carriers.
Is Catnip Addictive?
The good news is that because catnip causes stimulation of the opioid system via cats’ own natural endorphins it is not addictive, and there are no concerns over withdrawal effects from it.
The herb catnip, and similar plants such as silver vine, provide many cats with a pleasurable experience when they sniff it, causing them to rub, roll, vocalize and play. It has long been speculated that catnip makes cats high, but until recently the way it caused its characteristic reaction in cats was unknown. A recent study has demonstrated that exposure to the active substance in a similar plant called silver vine, causes a release of endorphins, which act on the body’s own opioid receptors causing a ‘natural high’ and euphoric state.
As this effect is caused by naturally occurring substances in the body it is not possible for cats to overdose or get addicted to catnip (although they should not eat large quantities of it as it can cause gastrointestinal upsets). So the good news is that it is safe for your kittie to enjoy catnip as a regular treat!
Frequently Asked Questions
Why Doesn’t My Cat Like Catnip?
If your pet is a kitten, then they are probably just not old enough to react to catnip yet. Cats often don’t show the characteristic catnip response until they are 3-6 months of age, so just keep trying every now and then as they grow up.
About a third of cats don’t seem to respond to catnip at all, unfortunately, but the good news is that 80% of cats do respond to silver vine which can be used as an alternative (around three-quarters of cats that don’t respond to catnip do respond to silver vine).
Can You Overdose Your Cat on Catnip?
Thankfully you can not overdose your cat on catnip, nor is the response they have related to the amount of catnip - once they have sniffed enough to cause the release of natural â-endorphins into their system they will react for about 5-15 minutes. It then takes a few hours before your cat will respond to catnip again. Although not classed as toxic, if your cat eats too much catnip it can cause vomiting and diarrhea.
Why Does Catnip Make Cats Go Crazy?
A volatile oil in catnip called nepalactone triggers the release of â-endorphins into the body which act on opioid receptors causing the euphoric reaction many of us have witnessed in our cats. Opioid receptors are the same ones that drugs like heroin and morphine act on, which explains the observation that many cats seem ‘high’ on catnip!
How Do I Give My Cat Catnip?
There are toys available that contain catnip which many cats enjoy rubbing and rolling themselves on, as well as often kicking at them with their hind legs. Catnip can also be purchased in a spray or oil form - this can be applied to appropriate areas like scratching posts. Catnip can also be given to cats as the fresh plant, or dried and sprinkled onto toys or surfaces for your cat to enjoy.
Bol, S., Caspers, J., Buckinham, L. et al. Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and catnip (Nepeta cataria). BMC Vet Res 13, 70 (2017).
Grognet J. Catnip: Its uses and effects, past and present. Can Vet J. 1990 Jun;31(6):455-6.