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Ask A Vet: Does Catnip Make My Cat High?

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Some cats are hilarious when exposed to catnip (Nepeta cataria). It is a garden plant in the mint family. The most noteworthy thing about catnip is that many cats love it and their antics when exposed are amusing. The cats act like they are “high” or drugged by the exposure, but are they? I guess it depends on your definition of “high”. We can’t ask cats how it makes them feel but they certainly seem to enjoy it. If we look at the similarites and differences between drugs and catnip, we find that there are some major differences.

Two scents worth

High inducing drugs act on the neurons in human brains, mostly by mimicking and displacing natural neurotransmitters, but the active ingredient in catnip, nepetalactone, binds to the olfactory (scent) receptors in cats and triggers a physiologic response from rolling and frolicking to chewing and vocalizing. The moleclues, then are perceived as a scent or pheromone (hormones that elicit a behavioral response).

Is it all in your head?

We tend to think of “getting high” as more of a response in the brain, triggering chemical changes that can even create a chemical dependance.  Cats do not seem to become addicted to catnip and the response will wane after about 10 minutes, like other scents that your nose “turns off” after a time.  Cats do not typically respond to catnip again sooner than an hour.

Aw, come on, everybody’s doing it.

Not every cat will react to catnip. Most say that it is a dominant gene so 70-75% of cats will respond to catnip, but most hallucinogenic drugs have an effect on the majority of humans exposed to them. So the facts suggest that catnip does not techincally make your cat “high”, but is more of a scent to them that causes an intensity in behavior.

Catnip is safe, non addictive and can be fun. It is said to be easy to grow and hardy to maintain. Because it does not seem to affect the olfactory systems of people, we cannot enjoy it like cats do, but some say that it makes a calming herbal tea.

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Written by Dr. Kathryn Primm
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