What is catnip?
Catnip is a perennial herb and member of the Mint family Labiatae that is known for it's ability to get cats high. Native to Europe and Asia, catnip has become naturalised in North America and Canada after being introduced by the colonists in the 1600's. There are approximately 250 species of Catnip, this figure doesn't include hybrid species.
Some of the more readily available varieties are:
Common (Nepeta cataria): White flowers, grows up to 3 feet. This is the variety most cats enjoy.
Camphor (Nepeta camphorata): White flowers with purple dots, grows up to 18 inches. Camphor scent.
Greek (Nepeta parnassica): White, pale pink flowers, grows up to 18 inches.
Lemon (Nepeta cataria citriodora): White flowers, spotted with purple, grows up to 3 feet. The leaves have a lemony scent.
Catmint (Nepeta mussinii): Purple flowers. This plant has smallish, grey/green leaves. It grows up to 15 inches high.
The name Nepeta is believed to have come from the town of Nepete in Italy. Cataria is thought to have come from the Latin word for cat.
Catnip is also known by the following names: cataria, catmint, catnep, catrup, cat's heal all, cat's-play, cat's wort, catswort, catwort, chi hsueh tsao, field balm, Garden Nep, Herba Cataria, Herba Catti, Nebada, Nep.
Catnip for Cats:
The active ingredient which 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 & beta-nepetalactone, citral, nepetalactone, geraniol, dipentene, citronellol, nerol, butyric acid, valeric acid and tannins.
When a cat encounters catnip, it usually sniffs it, rubs against it, licks it and finally eats it. It's actually the sniffing that gets 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. When sniffed, catnip will stimulate a cat; however when eaten it will act as a sedative. Only around 50% of cats are affected by catnip; and those who are are affected to differing degrees. Kittens younger than eight weeks old aren't able to enjoy its effects. In fact, they show an aversion to it. The response to catnip appears to be inherited as an autosomal gene.
It's not just domesticated cats who enjoy the effects of catnip, many lot of wild species 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.
Nepetalactone causes a hallucinogenic effect. Some say the effects are similar to LSD; others say they are more similar to marijuana. 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. The response to catnip is via the olfactory system. Even cats who can't smell will still respond to catnip.
The effects of catnip seem to change from cat to cat. I had one cat who drooled and rolled on the floor, and another one who would become very hyperactive, a third became aggressive and picked fights with the other cats when he'd had catnip.
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.
Interestingly, researchers say that nepetalactone is about ten times more effective at repelling mosquitos than DEET, which is the active ingredient in most insect repellents. It was also discovered that catnip repels cockroaches too!Plants aren't alone in containing nepetalactone; some insects such as ants, also contain it. It's been speculated that this protects them from other insects. Rats and mice are also believed strongly dislike catnip and avoid places where it grows.
How to grow catnip:
Catnip is usually fairly easy to grow; you should be able to purchase the plant from your local garden centre. It likes light, sandy soil and grows best in full sun.
Harvesting and drying catnip:
You can take leaves from your catnip plant throughout the year. To dry, place in the oven on very low heat. Store in an airtight container.
"If you set it, the cats will eat it. If you sow it, the cats don't know it."
Philip Miller, The Gardener's Dictionary
This saying came about because fresh catnip is supposedly more attractive to cats when it is bruised and the transplanting process often bruises the leaves. I don't know how much truth there is to that; certainly my cats will have a nibble on the catnip I keep in their enclosure, which hasn't been bruised.
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 but it does have many uses. Catnip tends to have a sedative effect on humans. It is most often drunk as a tea.
To make catnip tea:
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.
Catnip is also useful for settling an upset stomach. It has been used to treat headaches, scarlet fever, coughing, insomnia, and smallpox. Catnip can also be used on cuts; studies show it has a natural healing quality. Crush fresh catnip leaves, dampen them and apply them to your cut. Some other medicinal uses for catnip are: anesthetic, antibiotic, anti rheumatic, antispasmodic, astringent, carminative, diuretic, muscular aches and pains, rheumatism, chills, cold in the joints, haemorrhoids, toothache.
K'Eogh, in his 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."
Pregnant women should avoid catnip.
It can also be used as an aromatic herb in cooking & salads.
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 do kill.
Valerian also produces the same reaction in cats, as do plants which contain the chemical actinidine.