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What does catnip do to cats & is it harmful?

Last Updated: August 24, 2021

Watching your cat roll around in catnip without a care in the world may have you wondering: How does it make your kitty so happy and is it good for them?

If you're the proud owner of an emotionally aloof kitty, you probably know that your cat can go from selectively antisocial to footloose and fancy-free with just a pinch of catnip.

Cats adore catnip — clearly. That it's a natural choice for your pet is a bonus, too. But what exactly is it, and how does it affect your fur baby?

What is catnip?

Also called nepeta cataria, it is a gray-green plant with jagged, heart-shaped leaves covered in fuzz-like hairs. It has thick, fuzzy stems and tiny lavender flowers. It smells faintly minty.

What is catnip made of?

It smells minty because it is a perennial herb that is actually a member of the mint family.

It contains the active ingredient nepetalactone, which is released from microscopic bulbs that burst as cats chew on the plant.

Can I grow catnip for my cat?

You sure can, and it's pretty easy to grow. Plant it in the garden or in pots, inside or outside.

Fair warning — like other plants in the mint family, it likes to take over the garden.

Does catnip expire?

Dried catnip doesn't expire if it's kept in a well-sealed, dry container.

It'll lose its potency over time, but it won't harm your cat unless it's moldy from exposure to moisture.


What are cat whiskers for?

Cat whiskers are a biological wonder. They are tuned to provide cats with tactile sensory information for navigating their daily lives.

But since they don’t have nerves, the whiskers don't actually feel anything.

What does catnip do to cats?

The chemical nepetalactone, released or extracted from catnip, has feline attractant and psychotropic effects on most cats — even big cats like tigers and lions!

This chemical binds to sensory receptors in a cat's nose and activates a euphoric emotional response in their brain. It also repels mosquitoes and helps protect against fleas.

Learn more about its flea-repelling properties from a vet below:

Is catnip a drug for cats?

Did we just read psychotropic effects? Does that mean it’s a drug?

Not in the sense of human drug use and addiction. Catnip works on a cat's hypothalamus to create euphoria. This state only lasts 10 minutes, and more than one-third of cats’ response to catnip is nothing at all.

It isn't addictive or habit-forming and has no long-term effects on Kitty.

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Why do cats purr and meow?

Meowing is a cat's universal language: a greeting, an announcement, an objection, a demand — or a vocal “thank-you” for giving them something they love!

Cats purr when they are happy, but purring is also a self-soothing behavior, so if your kitty is purring but doesn't seem content, they may be feeling sick or anxious.

How to give catnip to your cat

Loose catnip

Cats enjoy chewing on and rolling in fresh catnip leaves — dried or fresh. Sprinkle it where you want your cat to go.

Only give Ms. Whiskers a tablespoon of dried catnip — too much will make her sick.

Catnip toys

Toys are a fun way to enrich your indoor kitty's environment. Rub some catnip onto a cat toy, or purchase a ready-made catnip toy, and watch your cat's delight!

As the potency fades, you'll need to refresh the toy with more catnip.

Catnip treats

Good quality treats work similarly to feeding your cat loose catnip. Eating it typically calms cats, while smelling it is a stimulant for cats.

Be mindful of how many treats your cat cons you into so they don't get sick.


Can cats have too much catnip?

It's unusual for cats to overdose on it. Most cats will enjoy it for 10–30 minutes or so and then lose interest.

Don't offer more if your furry friend has moved on, since eating too much of it can make cats sick to their stomach. However, in general, It isn’t bad for cats long-term and definitely not fatal.

A few more quick facts about catnip

Now that we’ve learned how it affects cats, there are some other uses for this plant that we’ll dive into real quick below.

What does catnip do to dogs?

Catnip’s effect on dogs is interesting. It actually acts as a sedative for them. As little as half a teaspoon sprinkled on your dog's food might help with anxiety if your dog gets nervous or sleep issues.

It acts as an herbal antiseptic too.

Is catnip edible for humans?

Technically, it is an edible medicinal plant with leaves that have a strong taste. Most people who consume it brew it up as a tea.

But it won't make you high — it has calming effects on humans.

What is catnip tea?

It's easy to make this beneficial tea — just pour hot water over a tablespoon of fresh or dried leaves in a cup, and steep it for 10 to 20 minutes.

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