If you’ve seen videos of felines chilled out on catnip, you might be wondering if the herb could calm your own anxious cat, or perhaps even serve as an alternative to prescription medication. The short answer is that catnip can sometimes calm cats, but not always.
Learn why cats are so smitten with catnip, how to use it as a calming treat, and a few other soothing home remedies to try if catnip doesn’t work for your pet.
What Is Catnip?
You won’t find a more beloved plant in the cat department. Catnip—also known as catmint—is a perennial herb in the mint family. It grows in North America, Europe, Asia, and North Africa.
The herb’s thyme-like scent has been recognized for its mysterious power to draw in felines for over 300 years. A special compound in the plant known as nepetalactone launches some felines into a euphoric state with an upsurge of endorphins.
Like domestic cats, lions, jaguars, lynx, and leopards have all been observed getting blissed-out on catnip. However, most tigers don’t seem to be swayed by the plant’s charms.
Do All Cats Like Catnip?
About 2 in 3 cats go cuckoo for catnip, while the rest couldn’t care less.
“A cat’s response to catnip is actually hereditary,” says Dr. Nancy Welborn, an assistant professor of veterinary clinical sciences at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine in Baton Rouge. “That’s why some cats really respond to it and others walk away—because it doesn’t do anything to them.”
In one study, cats who responded to catnip obsessed over a small amount of it; non-responders didn’t even stop to give it a sniff. This seems to indicate that cats who have evolved to love catnip have also developed especially sensitive olfactory receptors to ping the brain with a flood of messages that this is a good smell.
But catnip also comes with a cool perk: the same compound that makes cats happy also keeps bugs off. All that rubbing and rolling around cats do when exposed to the herb isn’t because they’re overwhelmed by pleasure. Scientists now believe it’s a useful maneuver to repel insects. One study shows catnip cuts cats’ mosquito exposure in half. “If cats get the plant’s oils on their nose or ears, it’ll help repel mosquitos,” says Dr. Welborn.
While this is a great benefit, most pet parents are more interested in how catnip might affect their cat’s temperament and mood.
What Does Catnip Do To Cats?
A wide range of reactions can follow after you’ve presented a cat that’s sensitive to the plant with a catnip-laced treat, toy, or cutting.
Usually, there are two phases, beginning with excitement. For about 5 to 15 minutes after your cat smells it, “you may witness that your pet is pawing or rubbing, rolling over it, licking it, and even chewing it,” says Dr. Alex Schechter, a Detroit-based veterinarian. “If a feline has a strong reaction to the herb, she also may get frisky, growl, purr, meow, drool, or act crazy until its effect wears off.”
Sometimes, cats may seem a little aggressive, but usually this is an effort to interact with the herb by pawing, kicking, or scratching at it.
The second phase is generally more relaxed. For the next hour—if not many hours—your cat may become calmer.
Adult cats are more reactive to catnip than kittens, possibly due to more mature brain connections. So if your kitten doesn’t seem to be into catnip at first, you might want to try again in a few months.
Does how much catnip they’re exposed to make a difference? Dr. Welborn says dosage doesn’t really matter. If a cat’s into catnip, she’ll let you know and play around with it until she’s had her fill.
Does Catnip Calm Cats?
Catnip doesn’t necessarily calm all cats. How a cat reacts to catnip will vary. Catnip may do nothing for your pet, drive her bonkers, or eventually sedate her. But there’s no guarantee catnip will calm her down—and in fact, sometimes it has the opposite effect.
If catnip calms your cat, you’ll know pretty soon, as her activity level will dip dramatically. She’ll stop running and rolling around, meow less, and spend a lot of time in a laid-back or sphinx-like position. She may take a long snooze.
But no need to worry: while catnip is potent, it’s typically not dangerous.
Can Cats Overdose on Catnip?
Catnip is non-addictive and non-toxic for cats. As such, cats can’t overdose on catnip.
“They usually get to the point where they’re super chill, they’ve reached their threshold of calmness, and then they stop using it,” says Dr. Welborn.
That said, cats can certainly start acting zany, and sometimes that can lead to problems. Those that get super-energized may become destructive or take risks that could lead to injury, like jumping off furniture. Vomiting or diarrhea could also follow if they eat too much catnip.
“It’s a wise step to experiment and see what works best for your cat,” says Dr. Schechter. “As with all treats, it is always best to give small portions so that your cat doesn’t become over-excited or aggressive.”
If your cat has an adverse reaction to catnip or shows signs of excessive intoxication like staggering, drooling, or difficulty breathing, seek immediate medical attention, advises Dr. Schechter.
And if catnip does not do the trick to calm your cat, don’t worry—there are plenty of alternatives to consider.