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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.
The active ingredient that causes a high in cats is an essential oil, 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. It’s not just domesticated cats who enjoy the effects of catnip; many other wild species of cats also enjoy it including lions, tigers, leopards, servals, lynxes, leopards and cougars. 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.
The response to catnip is inherited as an autosomal dominant gene, which means the gene only needs to be passed on from one parent.
Mechanism of action of catnip on cats:The response to catnip is mediated through the olfactory system.
When nepetalactone enters the cat’s nasal passages, it binds to olfactory sensory neurons found in the olfactory epithelium (specialised tissue located in the roof of the nasal cavity, at the back of the nose), which is involved in smell. A layer of mucus covers the olfactory epithelium which traps odour molecules.
The olfactory sensory neurons send signals through the olfactory tract to the olfactory bulb which is located in the front part of the brain and responsible for processing smells.
The olfactory bulb then sends signals to several regions of the brain including the amygdala (responsible for emotions) and the hypothalamus (responsible for behavioural responses).
The cat’s sense of smell is far superior to that of humans. The size of the feline olfactory epithelium is 20 cm squared, compared to our paltry 2 – 4 cm squared. Cats also have 200 million scent sensors and humans have 5 million.
Four responses have been described when a cat encounters catnip.
Chewing, licking and head shaking
Chin and cheek rubbing
Head rolling and body rubbing
Additional responses may include stretching, drooling, jumping, licking, aggression, and hyperactivity. Sniffing produces the high; it is believed that cats chew or eat catnip it is to bruise the leaves, thereby releasing more of the nepetalactone.
The high produced will usually last between five and ten minutes, followed by a one hour period where the cat remains unaffected by catnip. Do cats get a catnip hangover?
Catnip is 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.
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.
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.
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.
Human 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.
Can other plants get cats high?Yes, apparently catnip isn’t the only high-inducing plant. A recent article in Wired talks about recent research which have found three other plants which are capable of inducing a high in cats. None of these plants contain the active compound nepetalactone, but do have similar compounds. Doctor Sebastian Bol, a molecular biologist and a founder of Cowboy Cat Ranch tried these plants out on 100 domestic cats from Southern California cat clinics to try the following plants on their feline subjects.
Plant matter was rubbed on a sock or a piece of carpet and placed within the line of sight of the cats. Their response was then noted. Eighty percent of cats responded to Silver Vine (interestingly, this plant is also known by the name of Cat Powder). That is 10% more than the number of cats who respond to catnip. Forty percent of cats responded to valerian root and Tartarian honeysuckle.
Some of the cats who didn’t respond to catnip did respond to the other plants, 23% of cats responded to catnip, valerian root, silver vine and tartarian honeysuckle. Green olives are also reported by some to send cats crazy. They contain isoprenoids (also known as terpenoids) which are structurally similar to nepetalactone. I offered an olive to three of my cats, all of whom ignored it. But it warrants further research. It seems many other cats love olives in the following Youtube clip.