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Effects of Catnip on Cats: Explaining the Kitty Insanity

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Most feline fanciers have encountered catnip at some point. Catnip shows up in cat toys and cardboard scratchers, and even in spray form to refresh bedding or scratching posts. If you have a green thumb, you might even grow it in your garden. And as soon as your cat catches a whiff? Bam! You have a different kitty. They’re rolling all over the floor, doing backflips, and performing kitty concertos. It looks like they’ve lost their minds. All from a few crushed leaves. But what are the real effects of catnip on cats? What drives the silliness you’re seeing? (Or NOT seeing – that’s possible, too) If you have catnip questions, we have answers.



Nepeta cataria belongs to the mint family. It’s one of over 250 members of that family, actually. (Didn’t know there were that many mints, did you?) The herb originated in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and it came over to North America with the settlers. And while its official classification is an herb, it turns into a weed once you pop it into the ground. The plant happily takes over any planted bed.

The square stem puts off triangular leaves with a toothed edge. In the latter half of the spring through autumn, you’ll see small pink or white flowers with tiny spots of purple. Some people grow catnip for its herbal properties (we’ll get to that in a minute). Others keep nice patches for their feline companions. And some people enjoy the look of the plant.

Kitty Insanity – Or How My Cats Lost Their Catnip Privileges

This story may sound familiar to you. It’s an example of the effects of catnip and the absolute insanity it can provoke in cats. People often joke that catnip causes cats to “get high” or even become addicted. And, I admit, this plays into those descriptors.

A friend of mine grew and dried organic catnip. She brought some into work for me to give my cats. I worked overnight at the time, and I felt guilty over my schedule. So I figured it’d be a nice treat for my kiddos. The Ziploc went into my tote bag.

If you’ve worked the graveyard shift, you know it takes a toll on you. I hit the door, tossed the bag on the back of a chair, and promptly went to sleep. A few hours later, I woke up to pure madness.


Those buggers got my tote bag off the chair, pulled out the Ziploc, tore it open, and proceeded to scatter the catnip from one end of the living room to the other. It looked like green snow.

And when I took out the vacuum to clean up the mess, they scrambled to scoop up the catnip. My little fraidy-cats who hated the vacuum! They looked like fluffy addicts trying to pick up their stash.

That was the last time catnip was allowed in my house. (Eleven years ago, in case you were wondering)

The effects of catnip often resemble crazy antics

The Effects of Catnip

What causes such reactions in cats?

Within the stems and leaves of catnip plants, you’ll find an oil known as nepetalactone. The nepetalactone is responsible for the effects of catnip on cats. How? Brace yourselves, because we’re going to get into a little science here.

The process works in the kitty brain:

  1. Your cat smells the nepetalactone.
  2. The oil binds to receptors in the nasal cavities, alerting nerve cells.
  3. Those cells trigger a cascade in the olfactory bulb (the scent center).
  4. Nerves then go to two regions in the brain: the amygdala and the hypothalamus.
  5. The amygdala controls emotional and behavioral responses.
  6. The hypothalamus coordinates with the pituitary gland to coordinate a “sexual response.”

Basically, what happens is nepetalactone causes your kitty to react like a female cat in heat. It behaves like an artificial cat pheromone.

Common Reactions to Catnip

For the first ten minutes, while the oil triggers the response in your cat’s brain, you’ll see these common reactions:

  • Dilation of the pupils
  • Rolling on the catnip
  • Rubbing their shoulders into the floor
  • Flips and other acrobatics
  • Running in mad circles
  • Vocalizations

If you’ve ever seen a cat in heat, their behaviors are similar to the effects of catnip (though they last longer). After ten minutes, though, the brain reaches saturation, and your cat becomes “immune” to catnip. So you’ll see them settle down. The “reset” period is around 30 minutes before they can start up again.

People often compare the effects of catnip in cats to a “high.” While felines get excited and playful, acting like goofballs, there’s no scientific proof that nepetalactone behaves like cannabis, marijuana, or cocaine. Your cat isn’t “getting high” or showing any other narcotic response. It’s a different kind of reaction – even if people mistake the crazy behavior.

Do the Effects of Catnip Apply to All Cats?

You’ve watched all of the catnip videos on Instagram and YouTube. So you ran out and got some catnip for your feline. And nothing happened. Why?

As it turns out, the effects of catnip aren’t 100%.

You’re dealing with the pituitary gland, so kittens need to reach sexual maturity before catnip starts to affect them. Until they hit six-months-old, catnip doesn’t provoke a reaction.

And the effects of catnip are hereditary. Some felines get the wiring to dance around and look foolish, while others don’t. About 50-80% of cats DON’T react to catnip at all. You may have one. (Though I’m sure they appreciated your gesture)

Finally, a 2017 study determined that some cats adopt a different effect of catnip. “They assume what’s called a kind of sphinx position, and they vocalize less,” says Dr. Bruce Kornreich, the Associate Director for Education and Outreach at the Feline Health Center at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Additional compounds in the catnip block signals in the brain, resulting in calm, “loaf” kitties.

Eating Catnip

Most cats remain content to roll around on their catnip stash. However, some lick and consume the crushed leaves. And people DO feed catnip to their felines. Can you expect the same effects of catnip if it’s consumed?

Actually, no. Because the nepetalactone bypasses the olfactory bulb, the nerve signals follow a different path. When cats eat catnip, it causes a calming effect (similar to the 2017 study).

You need to go easy on amounts, though. Catnip overdoses result in potentially severe health problems:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty walking

If you decide to administer catnip to your kitty, consult your veterinarian for proper dosing. And make sure they know if you’re using fresh or dried. (Fresh herbs are more potent)

Catnip is often infused into cat toys

Humans and Effects of Catnip

People cultivated and maintained crops of catnip before social media turned the herb into a star. But not because we experience a similar euphoric effect. As a matter of fact, if you inhale crushed catnip, you won’t experience anything. This is because our brains lack the wiring of our feline friends. But we CAN enjoy other benefits from the catnip plant.

Alternative medicine focuses on the calming effects of catnip. Brewed in tisanes (essentially, a tea minus the tea leaves), catnip behaves similar to chamomile. Many herbalists use the herb to help with:

  • Migraines
  • Cramps
  • Nervousness
  • Inflammation (they make a paste to apply to joints and injuries)

Concentrated catnip oil also makes an effective mosquito repellent – for a few hours, anyway. (At least it smells better than some of the chemicals out there!)

Kitty Crazies

People get a kick out of the effects of catnip on cats. For a few minutes, your feline loses control and turns into a complete nut. Then they crash and enjoy a nap so they can repeat the antics all over again. Or they assume the sphinx pose and go into a kitty meditation. Either is possible when you sprinkle catnip on the floor or introduce a catnip toy. Or you may have one of those cats lacking the hereditary programming to fall for catnip’s charms. It’s all a genetic roll of the dice.

They aren’t “high,” but they enjoy a euphoric sensation, courtesy of the neurotransmitters in their brains. One they won’t get addicted to. But if you’re sneaking catnip into your kitty’s food, mind the dosing. You don’t want to cause health problems.

Not too shabby for a plant most people consider an obnoxious weed!

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Andria Kennedy

Andria Kennedy

Andria grew up in a pet-friendly household. On weekends, the family made trips to zoos and aquariums in the area. So it wasn’t a surprise when she gravitated toward a career with animals.

After six years working among the background operations at the Philadelphia Zoo, she gained a unique insight into the veterinary world. The vet staff provided her first lessons in terminology, the identification of medical equipment, and glimpses of radiographs (x-rays). She also enjoyed plenty of opportunities to talk with everyone, including the veterinary technicians. And they offered an alternative for someone NOT interested in surgical pathways: Namely, their course of study.

Andria enrolled at Harcum College. Philadelphia boasts two programs for vet techs, but only Harcum works with the Ryan Veterinary Hospital and New Bolton Center (University of Pennsylvania’s small and large animal facilities, respectively). Harcum’s vet tech students receive six months of hands-on teaching and experience alongside Penn’s vet students.

With the opportunities and connections available with one of the top veterinary schools, the decision was easy for her to make.

New Bolton Center: Large Animal Medicine
Andria ended up trudging through snow up to the knee and shivering in subzero temperatures during her winter semester, but she wasn’t disappointed with her choice. New Bolton provided a thorough grounding in large animal medicine. A horse-lover as a child, the experience renewed those old emotions.

And a few memories stood out and remained to this day:

  • Standing alongside a Clydesdale and feeling TINY
  • Holding the reins of a horse galloping at top speed on a treadmill
  • Nursing tiny foals through the first days of their life

Ryan Veterinary Hospital: Small Animal Medicine
Veterinary students can legally work at a practice while studying. Andria took advantage of the opportunity, gaining “real life” experience while attending class. It provided a slight advantage when she entered her three months at the small animal hospital.

However, as Ryan Veterinary Hospital offers treatments unique to the veterinary community, she continued to gain valuable experience. For instance, she spent a day working alongside their Chemo Team. The positivity of everyone she encountered – staff, clients, and patients alike – left a lasting impression.

Additional standout moments included:

  • An afternoon spent with the head of the feline kidney transplant program
  • A day serving as the anesthesia technician in their new radiation unit
  • Recognizing a radiograph of a giant elephant shrew (applying her previous zoo knowledge)

Emergency/ICU Veterinary Technician
Accompanying her Associate of Science in Veterinary Technology, Andria received a passing score on the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE). The two led to her certification/license as a veterinary technician – first in Pennsylvania (CVT) and later in Virginia (LVT).

Emergency medicine appealed to her from the beginning. The flux of ailments, injuries, and even species kept her mind sharp at all times. The knowledge required to handle cats, dogs, exotics, and even wildlife is highest in an ICU setting. When a vet tech never knows the patient’s stability coming back to the treatment area, skills and the ability to respond in an instant always stay in peak shape.

With treatments evolving at a constant basis, Andria sought out the best Continuing Education opportunities. She attended the International Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society (IVECCS) Conference whenever possible. This allowed her to discuss the latest wound treatments, medications, and advancements in diet formulations.

Cardiology Veterinary Technician
With the increased knowledge and experience, Andria noticed gaps in her abilities. Her grasp of cardiology remained at the basic level. She wanted to boost her skills and understanding as much as possible, improving her patient care. When an opportunity within the practice arose to move into the cardiology department, she accepted.

She sharpened her ability to read ECGs, recognizing arrhythmias of every type. Speaking with the cardiologist, she learned to read echocardiograms, picking out the most common disease processes. And, courtesy of her position in the department, she took in everything she could regarding the grain-free diet concern.

And throughout her ten-year career, she built her store of client interactions. She learned stories of heartbreak and hope. In the middle of the night, she shared touching and humorous conversations. Every moment taught her to engage with people. And the skill blended into her writing ability, capturing the interest of pet-lovers everywhere.

Check out Andria’s LinkedIn here

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