What does catnip do to cats? The science of your cat’s favorite treat explained.

·4 min read

Anyone who has a cat or kitten knows how crazy their feline friend goes for catnip. What is catnip, though, and why does it drive cats crazy?

According to PetMD, catnip is a herb closely related to mint. When cats smell catnip they experience behavioral changes which can mimic a female cat going into heat, but male cats can also be affected by catnip.

When cats smell Nepetalactone oil, which is found in the leaves of catnip, it can cause behavioral changes as the scent is carried to their brains from pathways in their nose and mouth, according to PetMD.

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What does catnip do to cats?

According to the Humane Society cats react to catnip by meowing, flipping, rolling, rubbing and zoning out. Some cats may even become aggressive if you approach them while they are playing with catnip.

Other behavioral impacts of catnip include playfulness, affection and even relaxation, according to PetMD. Cats experience different behaviors when they ingest catnip mellowing out, according to the Human Society.

Catnip can be given to cats through toys filled with catnip, with fresh catnip plants that can be grown indoors, with a dried out plant which can be sprinkled on the floor or on old toys or through a spray which can be used on old catnip toys or in your cat’s play area, according to pet food company Purina.

Most cats will lose interest in catnip in around 10 minutes, according to the Humane Society. The effects of catnip, however, can last up to two hours. After those two hours a cat can be affected by catnip again.

Not all cats exhibit the same effects from catnip, with about 20 percent not being attracted to the plant, according to Petmate. Kittens less than eight weeks old and senior cats may also not experience a response.

Can cats overdose on catnip?

Although catnip is safe for cats to ingest, it is possible for cats to have too much of the plant, so it is important to control how much your pet is exposed to it, according to the Humane Society. However, it is not likely that your cat will overdose from catnip.

Too much catnip can cause dizziness, diarrhea, trouble walking or vomiting in your pet, so it is best to speak with your veterinarian about the correct dosage for your feline friend, according to PetMD.

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Why do cats love catnip?

Domestic cats and even tigers, lions and leopards all love catnip, but why? Nepetalactone, an essential oil found in the catnip plant, stimulates cats in ways that are similar to how cannabis affects humans, according to MyPetNaturally.com. When cats ingest or rub themselves with catnip, nepetalactone triggers a euphoric reaction, which makes cats feel good, according to Purina.

What are the benefits of catnip? Does catnip help cats with anxiety?

There are many benefits that come with introducing catnip to your cat’s routine. According to Petnaturally.com, catnip can help reduce stress, depression and anxiety in cats by acting as a sedative. Catnip can also reduce bloating and stomach pain.

Does catnip get cats high? Can cats get withdrawal from catnip?

According to PetMD, catnip can produce a high in cats similar to highs from marijuana usage. When cats smell catnip and nepetalactone it works its way through their inner opioid system and interacts with cells in their upper airways. This causes the release of endorphins acting as natural opioids, according to a paper in ScienceDirect.

Theories that catnip produces reactions similar to hallucinatory drugs like LSD, however, may not be true and are hard to prove, according to PetMD.

Do not be alarmed, though. Your cat cannot become addicted to catnip and will not experience an opioid withdrawal no matter how much catnip your pet is exposed to. Frequent exposure to catnip, however, can cause your cat to develop a tolerance to the plant, according to PetMD.

How often should I give my cat catnip?

Because cats can build up a tolerance to the catnip you should limit your pet’s exposure to around once a week, according to PetCareRX.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What does catnip do to cats? And how much catnip should your cat have?