What Is Catnip?

May 31, 2022 | Cat Health

What is catnip? Catnip can be found in just about any cat owner’s home. There are many cats that can’t get enough of it! Almost every cat toy is full of it. This little plant is full of fun and surprises. Did you know that it isn’t just for cats? That’s right – humans can benefit too. Let’s take a look at what is and what makes catnip so great.

So, What Is Catnip? Where Does It Come From?

What is catnip? It is a totally pawsome plant that is safe for cats! We explore what catnip is, it’s active ingredient, how it affects cats, and its effects on humans. Catnip tea, anyone?

You may be wondering, “what is catnip?” It’s scientific name is Nepeta Cataria. Nepete was an ancient Etruscan city (now Nepi in central Italy) and Cataria is Latin for “of a cat.” Other common names for the plant include Catmint, Catswort, and Catnep. Technically, there is a difference between catnip and catmint, but they are both of the same family and have the same effect on cats and people.

No matter what you call it, catnip is a member of the family of mint plants (called Lamiaceace). According to Gardener’s World there are over 7,000 species that belong to the Lamiaceace family (source). It has broad, heart shaped green leaves, a square stem topped with a grouping of small white or lavender flowers (source). It is a perennial plant that can grow up to 3 feet in height! Bees love the flowers and will probably visit your garden.

Catnip originated in Europe and Asia but has spread across the world (source). Early settlers of the America’s brought it over with them and it adapted well to the new environment. Today it is an inexpensive plant that grows and spreads very easily. Many cat lovers grow it in their homes or gardens.

The Effects Of Catnip In Cats

What is catnip? It is a totally pawsome plant that is safe for cats! We explore what catnip is, it’s active ingredient, how it affects cats, and its effects on humans. Catnip tea, anyone?

Catnip is known to make cats go crazy! It even effect big cats like lions. Some cats will rub their faces on it, lick it, roll around in it, become hyper, or behave in a sexual manner. However, some cats don’t seem to care about it at all. There is actually a gene that gives cats the ability to react to it. According to the Humane Society (source), about 50% of cats have the gene and 50% do not. Generally, a kitten will not react to it until they have reached sexual maturity (5 or 6 months of age).

So, what is catnip to cats? Why do they go so crazy for it? Cats that can react to it are very sensitive to the smell and effects of an oil called Nepetalactone. This oil is released when the plant is crushed.

It used to be thought that catnip was processed through the cat’s vomeronasal organ (inside the cat’s mouth), but that was proven not to be true (source). It turns out that Nepetalactone actually affects the Olfactory system (in a cat’s nose) and elicits a sexual response. Essentially, Nepetalactone simulates a cat pheromone.

Nepetalactone has not shown to be truly addictive to cats, however PetMD (source) does caution that overuse can cause diarrhea and vomiting. Remember that cats are obligate carnivores and can’t handle a lot of plant matter in their diet.

A cat will react to the catnip oil for about 10 minutes and then become numb to its effects. It can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours before the cat will react to Nepetalactone again. Make sure to store it in an airtight container since it can lose its potency over time! Placing it in the freezer can help preserve its freshness as well.

Uses For Catnip In Humans

What is catnip? It is a totally pawsome plant that is safe for cats! We explore what catnip is, it’s active ingredient, how it affects cats, and its effects on humans. Catnip tea, anyone?

Catnip is something you and your kitty can share! Humans do not share a cat’s reaction to Nepetalactone, but there are plenty of benefits for us. What is catnip for humans? The plant offers a number of homeopathic remedies for humans. It is full of vitamins C and E as well as offering a tranquil chamomile-like effect in humans. According to WebMD (source), there are a few of the homeopathic uses for humans:

  • A gentle sleep aid.
  • To relieve anxiety.
  • To relieve indigestion, gas, and abdominal cramps.
  • As a mosquito repellent. Studies (source) have found that Nepetalactone is 10 times more effective than Deet. However, these studies were not done on humans or animals.

Note: As always, talk to a doctor before trying any new remedies. While these remedies have been used and considered effective by people for many years, there isn’t necessarily a lot of scientific research available to give them the conventional medical approval. Allergic reactions are possible. WebMD cautions pregnant women and infants against using catnip tea. There have been few studies on children and catnip tea.

What is catnip used for? One of the most common ways that it is used by humans is in tea. Add either 1-2 teaspoons of dried leaves or 3-4 fresh leaves to hot water and let it steep. The effects of the tea will be greater the longer you allow the tea to steep. Do not boil the catnip or it might lose some if it’s oils. Sweeten it as you would any other herbal tea. Other methods of using it include chewing the leaves, applying the oils topically, and smoking it.

Sources And Digging Deeper

What is catnip? It is a totally pawsome plant that is safe for cats! We explore what catnip is, it’s active ingredient, how it affects cats, and its effects on humans. Catnip tea, anyone?

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15 Comments

  1. Eastside Cats Blog

    All of our cats have a reaction to catnip…except one.
    Paddy O’Malley had no interest in the stuff.
    Actually, I was his favorite drug…and he was mine!

    Reply
  2. Athena

    I must admit, I don’t go that crazy for catnip 😻

    Reply
  3. Ellen J Pilch

    Great post. I didn’t know it can be stored in the freezer. Also didn’t know I could use it as tea. 🙂 All my cats except Trouble love it.

    Reply
  4. Brian Frum

    That was darn interesting and we’re in need a a NipFest here!

    Reply
  5. Sandee

    I learned a lot about catnip that I didn’t know. Thank you.

    Have a fabulous day and rest of the week. ♥

    Reply
  6. meowmeowmans

    Thanks for the primer about catnip! Who knew you could put it in the freezer? 🙂

    Reply
  7. Michelle & The Paw Pack!

    Fun fact….Dogs can have catnip too! But for dogs, the effect is similar to what you wrote about for humans. It can help them relax/sleep, and with anxiety. I sometimes sprinkle a bit on my dogs food, especially if we’re dealing with a stressful event like a vet visit. Funny enough, the one time I did have a cat she didn’t react to catnip. I buy it more often for my dogs than I ever did for my cat!

    Reply
  8. Terri

    This is very interesting. I didn’t know all this about catnip. I did know that all my cats loved it. Very informative. I’m sharing it with my pet friends.

    Reply
  9. Ruth Epstein

    How interesting, I never knew us humans could use it also. Maybe I should get some to help me sleep. Layla wants to know why there isn’t any for dogs LOL

    Reply
  10. Kamira Gayle

    Interesting read. I also didn’t know the backstory about catnip. And I found it interesting it only impacts about 50 % of cats. Who knew catnip could be used for homeopathic uses too? Cool.

    Reply
  11. jana

    Such interesting information–especially the bit about mosquito repellent activity. That could be worth of try. Since I started dabbling in vegetable gardening, I also learned that catnip is a complimentary plant for some vegetables.

    Reply
  12. Beth

    Our cat likes catnip! I’ve thought about trying to grow it, but have not so far. I didn’t know that it was useful for humans too.

    Reply
  13. Dorothy "FiveSibesMom"

    You know, I really did not know much about catnip at all! Such an interesting article, Robin!

    Reply
  14. Marjorie Dawson

    We have a lot of cats and some love it, some totally ignore it. Our garden ‘nip plant has to bounce back after repeated nibbles from the garden cats though! I must say though, WE as humans have had catnip tea!

    Reply

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