Botanical name: Nepeta catara
What is catnip?
Catnip is a perennial herb from the mint family Labiatae. It has a square, hairy stalk with typically green/grey coloured heart shaped leaves that have scalloped edges. Flowers grow in spikes, reaching 1/2 inch in length. It is best known for its ability to get cats high.
There are approximately 250 species of flowering plants in the family Labiatae, some of which include:
Nepeta cataria (catnip or true catnip): White flowers, grows up to 3 feet. This is the variety most cats enjoy.
Nepeta camphorata (camphor catnip): White flowers with purple dots, grows up to 18 inches.Camphor scent.
Nepeta parnassica (Greek catnip): White, pale pink flowers, grows up to 18 inches.
Nepeta cataria citriodora (Lemon catnip): White flowers, spotted with purple, grows up to 3 feet. The leaves have a lemony scent.
Nepeta mussinii (Persian catmint): Purple flowers. This plant has smallish, grey/green leaves. It grows up to 15 inches high.
Native to Europe and Asia, catnip became naturalised in North America and Canada after being introduced by the colonists in the 1600s. The name Nepeta is believed to have come from the town of Nepete in Italy, and Cataria is thought to have come from the Latin word for cat.
Nepeta cataria is also known by the following names: cataria, catmint, catnep, catrup, cat's healall, cats-play, true catnip, cat's wort, catswort, catwort, chi hsueh tsao, field balm, Garden Nep, Herba Cataria, Herba Catti, Nebada, Nep.
Catnip effects on cats:
The active ingredient that causes a high in cats is an essential oil called nepetalactone, which can be found in the leaves and stems of the plant. Other constituents include acetic acid, alpha and beta-nepetalactone, citral, nepetalactone, geraniol, dipentene, citronellol, nerol, butyric acid, valeric acid and tannins.
Nepetalactone causes a hallucinogenic effect. Some say the effects are similar to LSD; others say they are more similar to marijuana (some people claim that smoking catnip induces a high like that of marijuana, not that we recommend you try it). Because cats affected by catnip roll on the floor—which mimics a female in estrus—it has been suggested that the plant acts as an aphrodisiac, but this is unlikely, as males react the same way as females. What is likely is the cat is reacting to similar feel-good pheromones released during sexual courtship/activity. However, non-sexual behaviour—including playing, chasing, and hunting—can also be observed.
Around 50–66% of cats are affected by catnip and to differing degrees. Kittens younger than eight weeks old aren't able to enjoy its effect; in fact, they show an aversion to it. The response to catnip is mediated through the olfactory system. When nepetalactone enters the cat's nasal passages, it binds to olfactory receptors located in the olfactory epithelium. This stimulates sensory neurons, which trigger neurons in the olfactory bulb to send signals to the brain. The response to catnip is inherited as an autosomal dominant gene, which means the gene only needs to be passed on from one parent.
It's not just domesticated cats who enjoy the effects of catnip; many other wild species of cats also enjoy it. Cats can smell 1 part per billion in the air. Males and females, fertile or desexed—there appears to be no one group more readily affected by catnip than another.
A typical response includes sniffing, chewing, licking, head shaking, and chin, cheek, and body rubbing (in that order). Additional responses may include stretching, drooling, jumping, licking, aggression, and hyperactivity. Sniffing that produces the high; it is believed that cats eat catnip to bruise the catnip, thereby releasing more of the nepetalactone. The high produced will usually last between five and ten minutes, followed by a one hour refractory period.
Interestingly, researchers say that nepetalactone is about ten times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET, which is the active ingredient in most insect repellents. It was also discovered that catnip repels cockroaches!* Plants aren't alone in containing nepetalactone; some insects and ants also contain it. It's been speculated that this protects them from other insects.
Rats and mice are also believed to have a strong dislike of catnip and will avoid places where it grows.
Is catnip harmful to cats?
Catnip is not harmful to your cat. They won't overdose on it. Most cats know when they've had enough and will refuse any further offers.
How to give catnip to a cat:
There are a number of ways to give catnip to your cat.
You can grow it in a pot and keep it near a window or in their cat enclosure. They can have a nibble as they see fit.
You can dry it out and sprinkle some on the floor for them.
You can buy toys with catnip in them. Most pet shops sell toy mice filled with catnip.
How much catnip should I give my cat?
If you are giving him dry catnip, a couple of small pinches will do.
How to grow catnip:
Catnip is fairly easy to grow. You should be able to purchase the plant from your local garden centre. You can also grow from seed, but the germination rate can be quite low. It likes light, sandy soil and grows best in full sun. Keep it well watered until it has become established. As the plant is growing, pinch out the top growth tips to promote bushiness. If you are planting it in a garden your cat has access to, make sure there is plenty of adjacent space around the plant so that other plants won’t be damaged if your cat rolls in it. If you have catnip in a pot for an indoor cat, have several pots growing outdoors so that you can rotate plants regularly.
Harvesting, drying and storing catnip:
You can take leaves from your catnip plant throughout the year. To dry, place in the oven on very low heat or hang upside down in a dry, ventilated area, away from the sun. It should crumble easily when it is ready.
Most pet shops sell catnip toys and/or dried catnip.
When storing catnip, put it in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer.
Does catnip work on humans?
Catnip doesn't induce a high in humans like it can in cats. It tends to have a sedative effect, instead. As we mentioned above, some claim it induces a high similar to marijuana when smoked.
Culinary uses for catnip:
Catnip is most often drunk as a tea to calm an upset stomach or help with sleep.
Catnip tea recipe:
Place 1–2 teaspoons of dried catnip into a cup and add hot (not boiling) water.
Let it sit for 10 minutes.
Flavour with honey or lemon (optional).
It can also be used as an aromatic herb in cooking and salads.
Medicinal uses for catnip:
Catnip is useful for settling an upset stomach. It has been used to treat headaches, scarlet fever, coughing, insomnia, and smallpox. It can also be used for cuts, studies show it has a natural healing quality. Crush fresh catnip leaves, damp them and apply to your cut.
Some other medicinal uses for catnip include anaesthetic, antibiotic, anti-rheumatic, antispasmodic, astringent, calmative, diuretic, muscular aches and pains, rheumatism, chills, cold in the joints, hemorrhoids, toothache.
K’Eogh, in his General Irish Herbal (1735) wrote of catnip, “It provokes urination and menstruation: it expels the stillborn child; it opens obstructions of the lungs and the womb, and is good for internal bruises and shortness of breath. Drunk with salt and honey, it expels worms from the body.”
According to The Herb Garden, "The root when chewed is said to make the most gentle person fierce and quarrelsome." In fact, there is a story about an executioner who would have to chew on the root of catnip so he could bring himself to kill.
Pregnant women should avoid catnip, as it can induce uterine contractions.