Catnip is a fragrant herb that belongs to the mint family. Its scientific name is “nepeta cataria” and it’s sometimes called “catmint” or “catswort.”
Even though cats go crazy and some even seem drugged around catnip, it’s not a drug.
All cats respond differently to catnip. Some of them walk away because they couldn’t care less, but others go nuts. The cats that do go crazy are responding to the active ingredient in catnip called “nepetalactone.“
Nepetalactone drives some cats crazy, but it can also drive mosquitoes, flies, cockroaches and termites away. Researchers have found that nepetalactone by itself is 10 times more effective than DEET, the ingredient in most insect repellents. Unfortunately, nepetalactone loses its repellent qualities when applied to the skin.
Those cats that do react will eat it or lick it; some roll in it and others just sniff it. The catnip reaction is inherited so not all of them respond. Young kittens and old cats rarely respond although large cats like tigers will.
If your cat’s behavior doesn’t change around catnip it’s nothing to worry about. About 10 to 30 percent of cats don’t go berserk over catnip. Not all cats respond this way to catnip, though young kittens and older cats are less likely to be affected. Catnip is completely safe and isn’t addictive to cats so give your feline friend a treat like Catnip Puffs every now and then.
The most amusing thing about giving cats catnip is the behavior change. Although it’s safe, keep in mind you can have too much of a good thing. If a cat eats lots of fresh catnip it could puke or have diarrhea, but this is rare. If it does happen don’t give your cat as much catnip or any at all.
Native to Africa, Europe and Asia, catnip can now be found all over North America, too. There are more than 250 species of catnip around the world today.
Catnip grows two to three feet tall and has sturdy stems with heart-shaped leaves. The tips of the plant’s stems will sprout blue, white, pink or purple flowers.
Although catnip can have its effect when grown as a fresh plant, most catnip toys contain catnip that has been dried and ground into tiny pieces. The leaves and stems of the catnip plant contain the nepetalactone oil. When cats smell nepetalactone, it stimulates special receptors that sense chemicals called “pheromones.”
The result is a kind of chemical reaction that gives the cat a sense of euphoria or overwhelming happiness. The effect has been compared to that of a hallucinogenic drug on humans.
When cats smell catnip, they will often paw at it, rub it, roll over it, lick it and even chew it. Cats who have particularly strong reactions to catnip may also get frisky, meow, growl, purr, drool and generally act crazy for several minutes.
After a few minutes, though, the effect wears off and cats will ignore it. After about two hours, cats may encounter catnip again and have the same reaction.
Whether a cat reacts to catnip is believed to be hereditary, which means cats inherit this trait from their parents. For example, most Australian cats aren’t affected by catnip.
Catnip also has a long history of use by humans as a medicine. When consumed as a tea or infusion, it has soothing and numbing effects that act like a mild sedative. Humans have also used it from time to time to treat nausea, headaches and toothaches.