What Is Catnip & What Does It Do To Your Cat?

Ever wonder why cats love catnip and what it actually does? Here's everything you need to know about your feline friend's favorite herb.

Eric Mann, DVM

Updated March 09, 2023 • Published March 09, 2023

Share to

What Is Catnip & What Does It Do To Your Cat?

Every cat parent at one time or another has likely given their cat catnip, watched the cat get ”high”, laughed at the cat acting funny, then moved on with their day.

As a veterinarian, I’ve been asked questions like, "What is catnip?", "Is it ok to give my cat catnip?", and, "How does catnip work?".  The answers to these questions are pretty straight forward, so let's dive in.

What is catnip?

Catnip is a plant—more specifically, an herb in the mint family. You can grow catnip in your own garden in every state—I live in the midwest and have grown it in my yard. Catnip is also known as catwort, catmint, and catswort—the scientific name for it is Nepeta cataria. I have even seen the plant in pet stores in a small planter box.  

You can spot catnip by its light green leaves and lavender flowers, although most pet parents will encounter the herb when it has already been incorporated into a cat toy.

Is catnip safe?

This is the most important question to ask, and the short and simple answer is yes, catnip is very safe. You really cannot give a cat too much—my kids would dump the catnip on the cat tree when they were younger. As far as we know, there is no toxic level of catnip for your cat. Catnip is even safe to give to your dog.

What does catnip do?

In all honesty, we are not entirely sure. I've heard many theories from cat parents about what catnip does. They have compared it to weed, mushrooms, and acid—things that can get people "high", but unfortunately, these are all incorrect. 

What we do know is that cats have an extra scent organ in the roof of their mouth—the vomeronasal gland—and it carries scents detected in the nose and mouth to the brain. And as far as we know, catnip smells like sex hormones to a cat.  So when your cat is rolling on the floor or purring or howling, that's what they're feeling. The sensation lasts about 10 minutes, then most of the time, they relax and are calmer the rest of the day. 

Keep in mind that catnip won't affect all cats the same, and it sometimes, it won't affect a cat at all. While some respond to catnip with happiness and relaxation, other cats become more active and playful, and sometimes even show aggression.

If you have questions about catnip or any health or behavioral issues your feline friend is experiencing, the team at Pawp is here to help 24/7—no wait time or appointment necessary.

Talk to a vet now — it's free!

Text, call, or video chat with a vet within minutes.

Talk To A Vet Now