Does Catnip Really Get Your Cat High? Facts About Your Cat's Favorite Plant

Katy Nelson, DVM
Jun 06, 2011
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Does your cat like catnip? I just found out that one of mine does and one doesn’t. Typical, according to the statistics.

My daughter and I were recently running some errands, and she decided to buy the cats presents. Keep in mind that she is four and her savings are, shall we say, "limited," so I knew I’d be the one footing the bill. I am nothing if not frugal (some would say cheap), so I gently steered her towards the one dollar cat toys. There, she selected a fuzzy pink mouse and a small catnip-stuffed pillow emblazoned with the words "I Love Cats."

We promptly lost the mouse (I think it made it out of the car and into the house, but I wouldn’t swear to it), but the pillow survived the trip home. Renee placed it ever so gently in front of the cats and stood back to watch their reactions.

Vicky – nothing. She looked at it quizzically, gave it a quick sniff, and walked away.

Keelor – ecstasy! He immediately started rubbing his face all over the pillow, drooling (he responds to many things by drooling), and purring. This continued on and off for days, after which time he completely lost interest. The last time I saw this previously adored object, it was in the corner of the laundry room covered with dust.

This experience made me wonder exactly what catnip is. You might think we’d have learned something about this in vet school (and maybe we did), but when Renee asked me why Keelor was acting so funny, I realized my knowledge was rudimentary at best. I did a little research and here is what I found:

  • Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb that is a member of the mint family. It can grow to be up to three feet high!
  • The chemical compound in the plant that attracts and affects cats is called nepetalactone. It is found in the leaves and stems.
  • Nepetalactone is a stimulant when sniffed by a cat, producing a "high" that is described as being similar to either marijuana or LSD. (How this was determined, I do not know.) And the effects last for about 10 minutes before wearing off and the cat going back to normal.
  • When a cat eats catnip, it acts as a sedative, but when smelled, it causes the cat to go crazy. It is thought to mimic feline pheremones and trigger those receptors.
  • Cats may react to the plant by rolling around, flipping over, and generally being hyperactive.
  • About 50 percent of cats seem to be affected by catnip, and the behavior that results varies widely between individuals, and it is believed to be an inherited sensitivity.
  • And if your cat does have the sensitivity, it will not emerge until your cat is several months old, young kittens are not affected by the chemicals in the plant.
  • Cats may rub against and chew on catnip to bruise the leaves and stems, which then release more nepetalactone.
  • Catnip is safe for cats. If they eat a lot, they may vomit and have diarrhea, but will return to normal given time (and no more catnip).
  • It is also known to help humans, it has been used for its sedative properties in humans for centuries, having similar properties to chamomile and is a very potent mosquito repellent
  • If cats are exposed to catnip frequently, they may no longer respond to it. Some people recommend that it shouldn’t be given more than once every two or three weeks to prevent habituation.

So if I had to guess, I’d say that all the nepetalactone has been squeezed out of Keelor’s little pillow. If I want to get him "high" again, I’ll have to splurge the next time I’m at the pet store, or start my own "home grown" operation.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

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