An orange cat sniffing catnip.

What Does Catnip Do to Cats?

Is catnip really a mind-altering substance for cats? Can kitties overdose? What does catnip do to cats? We review the basics of catnip with videos to boot.

Phillip Mlynar  |  Apr 18th 2019

We like to joke that catnip is like drugs for cats — but it turns out there’s definitely some psychotropic science going on when your feline gets into the catnip zone. But what does catnip do to cats? Check out this breakdown of what’s going on when your cat does catnip.

How Your Cat Gets High from Catnip

A cat looking funny, surprised or concerned.

Has this funny-looking kitty just had some catnip? Photography by fotostok_pdv/Thinkstock.

What does catnip do to cats? Well, according to science buffs, cats react to catnip after a volatile oil in it called nepetalactone interacts with the nasal tissue. Yep, they’re pretty much sniffing up the ‘nip. Once the catnip has been engaged, it starts to replicate pheromones that in turn switch on feline receptors and make all sorts of neuron lightbulbs pop off in the cat’s brain.

Looking for a less scientific answer to the question, “What does catnip do to cats?” Apparently, catnip produces a similar reaction to dabbling with LSD or marijuana (although let’s assume that no cats were actually subjected to such drugs in the name of catnip research). Oh, and the catnip high usually lasts for little more than 10 minutes, after which all order and decorum is resumed for another half an hour, before a cat’s catnip sensors are reset.

What Happens When Your Cat Eats Catnip

So, what does catnip do to cats if they eat it? If your kitty decides to smush her face in the catnip and scarf it down, there’s a strong chance she’ll slip into a sedated state of bliss. Yep, at this point your feline is zoned out and no doubt hallucinating waterfalls of gravy cascading down walls that are now made of infinite cardboard. For proof, the video above captures seven — count ‘em — totally blitzed cats.

What Happens When Your Cat Smells Catnip

And what does catnip do to cats if they choose to sniff it? If your feline is the sophisticated sort who only smells catnip, that’s when she’ll really go all types of crazy. You’ve seen the moves before: It’s when she rolls around frenetically on her back as if she’s no longer in control of her physical faculties. Nearby collateral damage — say to a box of toys — might also ensue.

Why Do Cats Rub Themselves on Catnip?

What does catnip do to cats when they roll around in it? Ever wondered why your cat decides to rub her body and face all over the catnip leaves rather than smell or ingest them? Well, that’s because she’s attempting to bruise the leaves so that more of that addictive nepetalactone manna gets released. It’s a bit like massaging kale leaves with olive oil when you’re making a salad.

Other Weird Behaviors of Cats on Catnip

But what does catnip do to cats physically? When a cat gets all in a catnip state of mind, it’s not uncommon to display the following symptoms: Bugged-out eyes, frantic rubbing and rolling around, a brief and hilarious sense of disorientation and bizarro meows.

Can Your Cat Overdose on Catnip?

So, what does catnip do to cats if they ingest a LOT of it? Can cats overdose on catnip? Not really. Catnip is natural — you can buy seeds to grow it yourself on your kitchen windowsill or in your backyard. So, all that will really happen if your kitty decides to break into the secret catnip stash is that she might end up puking a little of it back up. Oh, and maybe her poop will turn into rivers of diarrhea for a minute. But after that? She’ll be right back to normal. Think of the potential effects of a catnip binge as little more than the feline version of a particularly messy human hangover.

Tell us: What does catnip do to your cats? Do you have any hilarious stories about cats on catnip? Tell us in the comments!

Thumbnail: Photography by gvictoria/Thinkstock. 

This piece was originally published in 2017. 

About the author

Phillip Mlynar spends his days writing about cats, hip-hop and craft beer, often while being pestered by his rescue, a mackerel tabby named Mimosa. When he’s not musing on the feline form for Catster, you can find his music articles at Pitchfork, Vice, Bandcamp and Red Bull Music Academy, and his beer insights over at CraftBeer, VinePair and October. He’s won various awards at the Cat Writer’s Association Communication Contests, some of which are proudly on display at his local dive bar in New York City. Twitter:

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