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Do Cats Get High Off Catnip? Feline Facts & FAQ

Sarah Psaradelis

By Sarah Psaradelis

cat with green eyes in catnip

If you have ever given catnip to your cat, you are probably wondering why they have such a strong reaction to it and whether they are high or not. Catnip can be quite entertaining for cats and most cats will react to catnip and act like they are “high”.

Although ingestion of the catnip itself seems to not affect a cat, the smell does make them “high”. This is due to a certain chemical that coats the leaves, stems, and bulbs of the catnip plant.

hepper cat paw divider

What Is Catnip?

Catnip is a plant from the shrub family called Nepeta cataria which is native to Asia and Europe but has been found growing along highways and roads in America. The plant produces a chemical known as nepetalactone, a microscopic substance that coats the seedpods, stems, and leaves in the plant. Once the bulbs rupture, the nepetalactone chemical is released into the air which is responsible for the “cat high” effect.

Catnip is added to cat toys or sold separately to give to cats for their entertainment. The plant itself is not harmful and smelling the nepetalactone does not affect humans, it only seems to affect members of the cat family, including ocelots, bobcats, cougars, and lynxes. It can be used in oil, dried plants, or live plant forms for cats.

Gray Cat Enjoying Fresh Catnip
Image Credit: Anna Hoychuk, Shutterstock

How Do Cats Get High on Catnip?

Cats get high from catnip by inhaling the chemical nepetalactone. This chemical is released from the plant and binds to the receptor in a cat’s nose which stimulates the neurons in your cat’s brain (olfactory system) to produce the high effect. The nepetalactone activates these receptors and signals to the hypothalamus and amygdala.

A recent study showed that the high from catnip is from the catnip working in the cat’s internal opioid system when they smell the chemical nepetalactone. This chemical reacts with the cat’s upper airway receptors and the body begins to release endorphins which act as natural opioids. Therefore, cats who inhale catnip can be seen vocalizing less, drooling, rolling over, or decreasing motor activity.

The way cats respond to catnip can either be active, passive, or a combination, which depends on the gender and age of the cat to a lesser extent. Some cats will even release the nepetalactone chemical from dried leaves or the plant itself by chewing and inhaling it. However, it’s possible that some cats have no reaction to catnip and do not get high like other cats.

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Is Catnip Like Marijuana?

Catnip and cannabis plants are different species and not the same, as cannabis falls under the hemp, nettle, and hackberry family, whereas catnip is a herb like sage, thyme, or lavender. Both plants are also taken into the body differently to produce the high effect.

Catnip is activated by the chemical nepetalactone that is detected by the brain’s olfactory bulb by inhalation or ingestion, and cannabis contains delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that can be either inhaled or consumed to produce a high. Catnip also works as a pheromone for sex hormones, which is why some cats will act like they are in heat for the 5 to 20 minutes the high effect lasts.

The side effects of both plants vary, as cannabis has a more hallucinogenic effect, but both create a feeling of temporary euphoria. Another difference is that both cats and humans can get high from the THC in cannabis, however, humans cannot get high from catnip.

It is important to note that giving your cat marijuana to get them high is dangerous and not recommended—it is not a replacement for catnip.

Can Cats Get Addicted to Catnip?

Catnip is not addictive, although cats do seem to enjoy the effects. Nepetalactone works more like a pheromone than a drug and the chemical release from catnip is not habit-forming. Although it is enjoyable for cats to experience endorphin release from catnip, they do not seem to crave or need the substance as one would associate with addiction in humans.

Catnip is also relatively harmless to cats when they smell it, but it can cause mild gastrointestinal upset if they consume the plant in large amounts. Cats who are allergic or sensitive to parts of the plant may also have a negative reaction to catnip. This non-habit-forming chemical makes your cat feel more euphoric and crazier than they usually would.

cat eating catnip
Image Credit: Doug McLean, Shutterstock

Side Effects of Catnip on Cats

Catnip is safe for cats, but too much can cause some unwanted side effects. If your cat is ingesting catnip, they will likely have a stronger reaction to the plant which is why you should monitor how much catnip your cat is consuming. Catnip works as both a sedative and stimulant, but the reactions may vary depending on your cat.

These are the main side effects cats will experience from catnip:
  • Euphoria
  • Sedation
  • Calmness
  • Playfulness
  • Overly affectionate
  • Drooling

Some negative side effects or cats who have bad reactions to catnip may experience aggression, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, and an upset stomach.

Is Catnip Bad for Cats?

Catnip is not considered to be bad for cats unless they have a bad reaction to the plant such as allergies, aggressive temperaments, or gastrointestinal problems. The catnip plant itself is not toxic to cats and it is safe for them to consume, however, the portion should be closely monitored so that they do not consume too much catnip. The effects of catnip are short-lived and will start to wear off after a few minutes.

tabby cat savoring catnip in the garden
Image Credit: Badon Hill Studio, Shutterstock

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Catnip can produce a high effect on cats when it is eaten or inhaled, which can make your cat act strange for a few minutes. It is not addictive to cats and unwanted side effects are usually rare. If given to your cat occasionally during playtime, it can be used as a fun way to entertain your cat by buying catnip toys, or oils, or crushing up the dried leaves for them to play with.

Featured Image Credit By: Georgia Evans, Shutterstock

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