Catnip. Catmint. Catswort. Nepeta Cataria. We’ve all heard of it, but how much do you really know about this mysterious plant? Native to Europe, the Middle East, central Asia and regions of China, catnip is so named because of the effect it has on felines. In this post, we’ll take a look at the science of catnip, how it can be used, and how it can benefit your feline friend.
What is catnip anyway?
Catnip, or Nepeta Cataria, is a herbaceous plant of the mint family. The name Nepeta derives from the Italian town of Nepete (known today as Nepi), where the plant was first cultivated. Catnip looks like a typical mint plant, with small tooth-edged leaves that are brown-green in color, and it blooms from late spring through to Autumn, with a colorful display of pinky-white flowers.
The cultivation and use of catnip goes back a long way. Though there is no hard evidence, it is likely that the Ancient Egyptians cultivated the plant, since we know that they kept domesticated cats. The Romans are known to have used the herb in medicines, and it remains in the history books throughout the Middle Ages before being introduced to America around the 18th century. Voyagers to the New World took cuttings of the plant with them, and a recipe from Massachusetts in 1712 even states “He boiled tansy, sage, hysop and cat-nip in some of ye best wort.”
What does it do?
The effect of catnip on cats is often described as similar to that of some mind-altering drugs. However, unlike other drugs, the effect comes from the smell of the substance. Since cats rely heavily on their sense of scent, the effects can be powerful! Most cats who sniff the plant will experience ecstasy, hyperactivity, and generally be very happy indeed. They might rub it, roll around on it, and go quite mad for it. Not all cats will enjoy catnip and some may just walk away, but around 70% to 80% will be affected.
How does it work?
While we don’t understand the exact physiology of how catnip works, it is known that nepetalactone is the active ingredient. Catnip contains a volatile oil which, when the plant is touched or agitated, is readily released into the air. The nepetalactone found in this oil is what excites cats. Reaction to the chemical is inherited genetically, so your pet may or may not be interested. Kittens are unaffected by catnip until the age of about 6 months, when they reach sexual maturity.
The triggering chemicals in catnip do their work through the animal’s sense of smell, entering the brain via the specialized scent organ in the roof of the mouth. The vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organs are connected to a cat’s mouth via tiny canals behind the teeth. For this reason, cats enjoying the effects may seem to grimace or pull odd facial expressions around the plant. In fact, they are trying to expose the Jacobson’s organ and maximize the effects.
The ‘high’ of catnip will usually last for around ten minutes, after which the cat will become immune to the effects for roughly half an hour. They might then take interest again.
DID YOU KNOW?
Catnip doesn’t only affect domestic cats. Some lions, tigers and other big cats will react too!
How is it used?
Catnip has various uses, but most commonly it’s employed as a training tool or a sedative. Misbehaving cats can be taught better patterns of behavior by using catnip as a reward, in place of a traditional food treat. Like all pet treats, associating positive behavior with a pleasant outcome is a straightforward psychological method for discouraging naughtiness!
As a sedative or distraction, catnip can be used to calm hyperactive cats, soften the terror of a car journey, or make an introduction to a new feline more friendly.
Catnip can be bought in its pure herb form, or pre-embedded in toys and playthings. These toys are a convenient way to introduce your cat to the experience through a concept they are already familiar with – playtime! But beware, overexposure to catnip can dull or even kill off your cat’s sensitivity to the chemical, so use sparingly.
The big question: is catnip safe?
In short, yes.
There has been some debate in the past about the safety and ethical questions of catnip’s use, but today veterinarians are almost unanimously agreed that the herb is entirely harmless. Catnip is completely non-toxic to cats. Another concern for some pet owners is addiction, but studies have shown that the substance is not chemically addictive either.
This being said, as pet owners we should always keep an eye on our pets’ reactions to any new experience. For example, catnip might make a male cat aggressive due to its connection to mating behavior. It is unlikely, but if this happens, you should stop using catnip. The best approach is to try a small amount of catnip with your pet to see how they react, before using it longer-term. Unfortunately, our animals can’t talk to us and tell us how they feel, so it is our responsibility to look out for signs of unhappiness or discomfort.
CATNIP FACTS – 5 THINGS TO KNOW
- Only 80% of cats react to catnip, and the response is genetically inherited
- Catnip can be kept fresh by storing it in the freezer
- Harmlessly adding catnip to food can encourage a cat to eat if reluctant
- Catnip has little or no effect on humans, as we lack the sensitive receptors of cats
- Catnip is entirely safe to use if your cat reacts well to it
 Allan Metcalf & David K. Barnhart, America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America, (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999), p. 47.