Catnip and How It Affects Your Cat

Firstly, what is Catnip? Commonly referred to as a weed, catnip is a perennial herb belonging to the mint family Labiatae. Catnip and Catmint are sometimes used interchangeably. However, this is not quite correct. Both are a perennial groundcover, both are a member of the mint family, but they are two different varieties of Nepeta.

Other names of the plant are catnep, cat’s play, catnup, catwort, nip, nep and field balm.

 There are approximately 250 species of Catnip and this doesn’t include hybrid species.                  

Some cats have a substantial reaction to catnip and others such as young kittens and older cats may have little or no reaction to it. This reaction has been described as the cat being in a state of kittenish friskiness and euphoria. Others have described it as acting ‘drunk’ or wild and others have likened the cat’s movement at this time as being similar to when a cat is on heat. Catnip similarly affects both male and female cats, which indicates that it can not be thought of as a female aphrodisiac.


It is difficult for us to understand this sensitivity to a scent, as humans do not react this way to any scent. It may be similar to the scents that trigger intense hunting behaviour in dogs. For humans the closest similarity would be a drug trip. Catnip can be considered as a legal recreational drug for cats.


The chemical nepetalactone in catnip, which is present in both the leaves and stem, is the compound which may trigger this response. Nepetalactone is considered to be a mild hallucinogen but is neither harmful or addictive to cats. It is unsaturated lactone that does for cats what marijuana does for people.


The receptor for Nepetalactone is commonly known as Jacobson’s Organ (or vomeronasal organ). It is located at the back of the cat’s nose and the catnip needs to be inhaled to cause the effect.You may view your cat exhibiting the Flehmen Response. This is where the cat pulls its gums back from its teeth, and it looks like the cat is smiling. The tongue is pressed against the roof of the mouth and forces air through the vomeronasal organ which basically concentrates the smell so she can not only smell the scent but can taste it too.


It is the scent of catnip, and not the consumption of it that has such a dramatic effect on cats. The plant secretes an aromatic oil (similar to mint) to ward off insects so as to prevent them from munching on their leaves. The odour of this oil results in the cat sniffing the plant, then licking and chewing it while her head is shaking, then may rub her chin and cheek against it and finally a headover roll and body rubbing. Vocalisation is common while she rolls around in ecstasy. The cat may purr loudly, growl and or meow or may leap around wildly. This normally lasts for only a few minutes. The cat will then suddenly lose interest and walk away. But the same response may reoccur two hours later if she comes back in contact with the catnip again.


The catnip plant exudes its characteristic odour all the time, but it is much more attractive to cats when the shoots are damaged or its in a withered state or when the plant is bruised during gathering or transplanting. This would also explain why cats only destroy transplanted catnip plants and not those raised by seed. When cats are enjoying the plant, they may chew the leaves, but this is more likely a way to release more of the scent that is in the essential oils. If excessive amounts are ingested, vomiting and diarrhea can result, but this is rare and the signs are self-limiting. If your cat experiences this, simply limit or withhold the catnip. If catnip is sniffed it acts like an upper and if swallowed  the effect is to sedate the cat.


So what determines whether a cat reacts to catnip in the manner described above? Susceptibility to behavioural changes has been shown to be inherited as a dominant trait in cats. So cats with one or both copies of the autosomal dominant gene will show behavioural changes when exposed to catnip.


It is thought that up to 30% of the cat population does not respond at all to catnip. This is especially true of young kittens. In fact, they often show an aversion to it. It is not until they are over 3 months old before they may become sensitive to it.


In the animal world, it is only cats that have this sensitivity, and it includes all species from the Big Cats such as Lions through to domestic cats.


Catnip In Toys

As with most herbs, exposure to air causes them to lose their essential oils. This would explain the limited success many people have had with purchasing catnip toys in pet shops. The toys may have been on the shelf for some time prior to purchase and the catnip have lost most of its essential oils, leaving the toy ineffective.


It is the way catnip is created, processed and preserved which will determine the potency of the scent. Catnip can be grown in the garden or purchased as a dry herb. If you purchased dried catnip, it is advisable to store it away in the fridge or freezer, away from your cats. The scent of catnip permeates through plastic, and cats will climb shelves, open cabinets or drawers, do anything to get to it.


Toys which are considered to be lifeless and dull, can be resurrected by placing catnip inside. The toy becomes much more interesting to the cat.


An alternative to dried catnip is catnip infused or moulded into plastic such as in catnip flippers. This toy gives off the scent for three months. It is advisable to store catnip toys in an airtight container with some added catnip, and brought out at playtime for twenty minutes at a time. This reduces the exposure to air and extends the life and effectiveness of the catnip in the toy. Once it becomes ineffective, simply replace the old catnip with some fresh catnip.


Catnip is not the only drug to have this effect on felines. Valerian is another one and plants that contain Actinidine.


Valerian is a hardy, perennial flowering plant and is a native to Europe and parts of Asia. It has also been introduced to parts of America. It is also known as Garden Valerian or Garden Heliotrope. The oils that form the active ingredient are extremely pungent, and the scent has been likened to well matured cheese. Valerian is also extremely attractive to rats and has been incorporated into baits for rats.


Actinidine is a chemical found in valerian root and in honeysuckle shrubs. It is also found in Silver Vine and in Kiwifruit. There are a number of toys on the market that contain Honeysuckle, but in Australia, they are certainly not as common as the catnip toys.


The down side of catnip, which may occur on rare occasions, is that exposure to it may make a cat aggressive rather than act as a stimulant. In these cases, it would be advisable not to give catnip treats or toys to these cats.




Catnip for Humans


Catnip is a very useful herb and can be used for a multitude of medicinal purposes. It may relieve toothaches by chewing on the leaves or relieving the painful condition of tonsillitis. Some cultures use catnip as a remedy for colds. Tea made from catnip leaves is thought to relieve intestinal cramps and flatulence. It also helps insomniacs to sleep. Catnip can be added to salads as a savoury green. Strong, cooled catnip tea is effective as an eyewash and helps to relieve inflammation and swelling due to some airborne allergies. Catnip also helps fight the signs of excess alcohol consumption, and may also act as a relaxant for humans. Distilled oil from catnip is effective as an appetite stimulant and has been used in the treatment of anorexia. Catnip oil repels mosquitoes ten times more effectively than DEET, which is the active ingredient in most insect repellents. Catnip can be used as a treatment for tension and anxiety, a calmative for hyperactive children. Catnip can also be used to eliminate toxins from the body.


There are other compounds besides Nepatalactone present in catnip oil and each one of them is an excellent natural insecticide. These include citronellal, geraniol, citral, carvacrol and pulegone. Thymol extracted from catnip is used as a fungicide.


So in summary, Catnip is a harmless and non addictive herb which has no long term side effects for your cat. So Sniff Away!






Author: C Lynch