Why Your Cat Loves Catnip (+ 4 Human Uses!)

February 8, 2018
Catnip - Dr. Axe

People often wonder: Does catnip get cats high? Or, is catnip bad for cats? If you’re a cat owner, then you probably already know that felines basically go wild for this perennial herb. All it takes is a few sniffs and cats enter a delirious, somewhat crazy state. It’s estimated that around 50 percent of cats have an inherited sensitivity to catnip that leads to their various excited — and often comical — reactions. However, when cats eat the herb, it has the opposite effect and it actually sedates them. (1)

So you probably knew that felines love the stuff, but did you know that catnip may also have benefits for humans? It’s true!


Catnip Plant Origin 

What is catnip? Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is an herb belonging to the mint (Lamiaceae) family that grows in North America as well as Europe. Other names for the herb include catmint, catwort and field balm. Cats of all kinds, from domesticated pets to lions and tigers, all go wild for this aromatic herb that has a minty scent.

The catnip plant has spikes of small white purple-dotted flowers. The leaves and stems of the plant contain a volatile oil called nepetalactone. Both the flowers and leaves are used for medicinal purposes. Nepetalactone triggers sensory neurons in many cats and it literally attracts them to the plant. This is why you often find cat toys stuffed with catnip. (2)

The nepetalactone found in Nepeta cataria is similar to the valepotriates found in the more well-known sedative herb valerian. This is why when cats (or humans) consume Nepeta cataria, it has a sedative effect. There’s also lemon catnip (Nepeta cataria Citriodora) which has a nice citrusy scent and also entices cats with its stimulating scent yet calming effect when eaten.

Another totally different catnip meaning: someone or something that is very attractive or appealing to a particular person or group. (3)


What Does Catnip Do to Cats?

So as I mentioned, it’s actually genetics that lead a cat to be affected by catnip. Around one in every two cats will go crazy for the herb and it’s between the ages of 3 and 6 months old that a reaction is likely to be noticed by a cat owner. How much catnip does it take to see a reaction? It only takes a sniff or two!

When cats sniff catnip, the effects typically last around 10 minutes. Behavior may include one or more of the following: (2)

  • rolling
  • jumping
  • purring
  • head rubbing
  • head shaking
  • drooling
  • vocalizations
  • aggression

Some cats will display these excited behaviors after smelling it while other cats will just get really mellow. Another reaction can begin as delirium and end in aggressive playfulness. No matter the reaction, it’s not long-lasting and typically will be over in a matter of minutes. (4)

Is it OK for a cat to eat catnip?

Yes, it is definitely OK but you don’t want to give it too often or else they can become desensitized. One recommendation is that it shouldn’t be given more than once every two to three weeks to prevent habituation.

Can a cat get too much catnip?

Yes, it’s possible for a cat to overdose on the herb, but it’s not common because domesticated cats tend to know when they’ve had enough.

Catnip facts - Dr. Axe

5 Catnip Health Benefits 

1. Stress Reducer (Cats + Humans)

Cats can get stressed out just like humans. Nepeta cataria is an herb that commonly makes the list of anti-stress natural remedies for domesticated felines. If you know something is on the horizon that is likely to stress your furry friend out (like a trip to your vet), then a common recommendation is to let your cat play with some catnip-laden toys or sniff some fresh herb about 15 minutes before the dreaded activity. This way your cat can get all of its energy and angst out beforehand and is more likely to be calm and mellow rather than stressed. (5)

Just like valerian, lemon balm and chamomile, catnip is another herb traditionally used and known to have a calming effect on humans as well. This is why store-bought teas for relaxation often include catnip — or you can make your own herbal blend at home. To manage stress, you can try having one to three cups of this tea daily. (6)

2. Cough Reliever (Humans)

Traditional medicine has employed Nepeta cataria as one of several natural cough remedies. Along with herbs like horehound, mullein, hyssop, licorice, and ivy leaf, catnip has a lengthy history of use for natural cough relief. (7) A study using animal tissue published in the Journal of Ethopharmacology concludes that catnip has antispasmodic and muscle relaxant abilities. (8) Another scientific review from 2015 includes catnip on a list of herbal bronchodilators that may be medicinally helpful for coughs as well as asthma. (9)

3. Sleep Booster and Tension Reducer (Cats + Humans)

While catnip shouldn’t be used daily, on occasion it can be a helpful tool that promotes relaxation and sleep in your cat. After a cat has an active 10 minutes or so of catnip-induced physical activity, it’s more likely to be calm and relaxed. So the herb will stimulate your cat initially after smelling it, but then he or she should be calmer for several hours to follow. When cats ingest catnip, it’s also known to have a sedative effect. (10)

Are you struggling with sleep deprivation? Some health professionals have been known to recommend Nepeta cataria as a mild sedative for people struggling with insomnia or nervous exhaustion. (11) Thanks to that chemical called nepetalactone, consuming the herb can have sedative-like affects in humans, which is why it may help with sleep trouble as well as tension headaches. (12)

4. Training Tool (Cats)

Many cat experts recommend using catnip as a training tool for cats because so many cats have such a strong reaction to the herb. So how can it be used to change your pet’s behavior? If your cat isn’t warming up to its new bedding, simply sprinkle a tiny bit of catnip on it and it should quickly become more more inviting. Are your cat’s claws ruining your beautiful furniture? Put a little catnip on a scratching post so your cat is more likely to put its claws on that post rather than your furniture. It’s important to note that you should wait about two hours between uses as a training aid so it will be effective. (13)

5. Skin Soother (Cats + Humans)

According to petMD, “If your cat is always scratching, and seems to have itchy skin, a catnip ‘tea bath’ can soothe kitty’s skin.” (14)

Sipping on some catnip tea may also help with human skin troubles. Since hives are often related to stress, the herb can help by calming the nervous system and acting as a natural hives treatment. (15)


History and Interesting Facts

Using catnip leaves and flowers in herbal teas was recorded hundreds of years ago (1735, to be exact) in the “General Irish Herbal.” The leaves and shoots of the plant have also been included as flavoring for a variety of food items including soups, stews, sauces, fruit wines and liquors.

In the early 1900s, the flowering tops and leaves are said to have been used to induce delayed menstruation. Jump to the the 1960s and catnip was supposedly smoked by some for its euphoric effects. (16)

Recent research has been looking at the potential for Nepeta cataria to be used as an anticancer treatment in humans. Specifically, researchers are hoping that the herb “may be used as a novel therapeutic agent for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) in the near future.” (17)

Catnip tea - Dr. Axe

How to Use Catnip 

Wondering what’s the best catnip for cats? I’m happy to say you can find USDA certified organic catnip nowadays. Non-organic versions of the herb may contain pesticides or insecticides. To keep it fresh, store it in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dry place. To maximize the strength of the fresh herb, crush it a little with fingers before serving to release the volatile oil. The herb is effective in very small amounts so less is more and always read package instructions.

If you’re wondering where to buy catnip, it’s not hard to find it and products that contain it at pet stores (for cats), health stores (for humans) and online (cats or humans). Catnip made for cats should not be used by humans.

For cats, you can find catnip as a live plant, a dried powder or solid balls. It’s also easy to find toys that already contain the herb. A spray version is another option, which can be used on bedding or toys.

Wondering how to use catnip as a human? Catnip tea is one of the most common and easiest ways to ingest the herb. You’ll often find it in some already packaged tea blends or you can make your own tea by combining one cup of boiled water with one to two teaspoons of the herb. Cover the tea and allow it to steep for at least 10 minutes or up to 15 minutes to maximize benefits. You can it two to three times during the course of a day. For coughs, adults can take 2 teaspoons of a catnip tincture up to three times per day. (7)

If you’re looking to include this interesting herb in your garden, it’s not difficult to grow in a sunny location outdoors or indoors. Like other mint family members, it can become invasive. So to prevent it from taking over, you can remove the flower heads before they mature and create new seeds. To harvest, simply cut the leaves off of the plant. They can be used as-is or you can dry the leaves and put them inside of cat toys. As an added bonus: these minty leaves are also known for keeping away mosquitoes. (18)


Possible Side Effects and Caution 

Can catnip hurt a cat? Vets seem to agree that cats are unlikely to overdose because they inherently know when they’ve had enough. However, if a cat does overdose, symptoms are likely to include digestive upset, diarrhea and/or vomiting. If a cat does get sick, it should clear up on its own, but see your vet if you are concerned. (19)

Catnip is generally considered safe for adults in small amounts such as in tea. However, it can be unsafe when taken in high doses by mouth (including too much tea) or when smoked. Nepeta cataria is also considered possibly unsafe for children when taken by mouth. Side effects of too much by mouth can include headaches, vomiting, stomach pain, irritability, and sluggishness.

Nepeta cataria is not recommended during pregnancy or breastfeeding since the volatile oil in catnip can encourage uterine contractions that can lead to miscarriage. Women with pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) or heavy menstrual periods (menorrhagia) should avoid it since it can stimulate menstruation and may make heavy periods worse.

As with most herbal remedies, it’s recommended to cease use at least two weeks before a scheduled surgery.

Humans should not use catnip that is sold for animal usage.

Some potential known drug interactions include lithium and sedative medications (CNS depressants). Speak with your doctor before taking catnip if you are currently taking medication or being treated for any health condition. (20)


Key Points

  • Is catnip safe for cats? Yes, it is considered safe and nontoxic for cats, which is why you often see it in cat toys.
  • Catnip tends to affect about 50 percent of cats when sniffed or eaten. Smelling the herb tends to stimulate cats while eating it has a calming effect.
  • The herb has overlapping benefits for both cats and humans that may include an ability to help calm skin, ease tension and encourage a restful night’s sleep. For cats, it can also be used as a training tool, while for humans, it has been traditionally used for cough relief.
  • Catnip tea is a great way to test out possible health benefits for humans.

Read Next: How to Prevent Cat Scratch Fever + Natural Symptom Relief


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