What is Catnip Used For?

Herb, drug, or seasoning?

Table of Contents

Adorable videos of cats playing with catnip toys are common, but how does it work? Does catnip have any other uses?

Catnip for Cats

Catnip comes from the plant Nepeta cataria. Dried, fresh, or concentrated into an essential oil, most cats go crazy for catnip! Catnip, or catmint, is an herb native to Europe, but is grown all over the world. Wherever there are pet cats, there’s catnip too!

The catnip flower
The catnip flower, Credit: Wikimedia/Jadnash
The minty leaves of the catnip plant
The minty leaves of the catnip plant, Credit: Wikimedia/liz west

The active ingredient in catnip is nepetalactone. Cats enter a state of euphoria when they smell this compound. This chemical is naturally emitted when the stems or flowers get bruised. Humans have found a way to cut Nepeta plants and dry them so the leaves emit nepetalactone or distill nepetalactone into an essential oil.

 

Catnip has an effect on between 60–80% of domestic cats. It also works on tigers, jaguars, leopards, snow leopards, and lions! This is probably because most types of cats are very closely related. If catnip does not work on a cat, other herbs with similar properties like Tatarian honeysuckle, silver vine, or valerian can be tried.  It does not work on kittens younger than three months, probably because their sense of smell is not yet fully developed.

 

Catnip affects most cats in a similar way. It works almost immediately, and the effect lasts for about 10–15 minutes. Cats roll around, rub their faces against the toy or scratch post that has catnip, and sometimes even get “zoomies”!

A cat experiencing the effects of catnip
A cat experiencing the effects of catnip, Credit: Wikimedia/Montrealais

Interestingly, cats seem to need a bit of time to recover from smelling catnip. If you introduce a cat to more catnip within a half hour of their first exposure, they will not react again. In other words, they need a bit of a “cool down” period.

 

Behavioral scientists have also classified catnip responses into “active” or “passive.” In an active response, a cat might run around and play with the object that has catnip. In a passive response, a cat will calmly sit and enjoy the catnip. Whether a cat will react actively or passively seems to depend on age, sex, and whether the cat has been sterilized.

Is catnip good for cats?

Catnip definitely is not bad for cats. It is perfectly healthy to eat in small quantities. It is similar to other herbs like parsley and oregano. In large quantities, it can cause an upset stomach or diarrhea. It is non-addictive, though there is some evidence to suggest a mild tolerance to catnip can develop. However, the data holds true only for tests on the effects of catnip on rats.

 

Since catnip causes such a strong behavioral response, it might be bad for anxious cats. Imagine you are stressed because your family member is not home yet. Would you want even more stimulation? Chronically stressed shelter cats seemed to avoid catnip. If you have an anxious cat, it might be better to keep some catnip in a part of the house they don’t use often. This way, they can expose themselves to catnip only if they want it.

Other Uses of Catnip

Catnip has so many uses and possibilities that it might be easier to describe what catnip isn’t used for. Indigenous communities have brewed it into tea to treat coughs, colds, boils, and seizures, or used it as a dried herb to flavor food. Since it has been used so widely, it is now investigated as an antibacterial and antifungal and has been found to be effective against common fungal skin infections like Candida. It can also help with swelling after infections and is a useful anti-inflammatory. Some people even consume it as an antioxidant. 

A drawing of the catnip plant in "A manual of the medical botany of North America" (1884), Credit: flickr.com/Johnson, Laurence

Researchers have investigated the use of dried catnip as an insect repellent, particularly for mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are often nothing more than a mild inconvenience to humans in the continental United States. They bite you and it itches, but it is usually not life threatening. But in tropical climates, mosquitoes can be dangerous disease vectors, carrying malaria or dengue. These diseases can affect cats too. Cats in areas where Nepeta naturally grows may have rolled themselves in catnip to avoid mosquitoes, but accidentally experienced the behavioral effects! This could be the evolutionary reason that cats and catnip have a close relationship.

A cat rolling in a catnip plant
A cat rolling in a catnip plant, Credit: WIkimedia/"T"eresa

Nepetalactone: How does catnip work?

Nepetalactone is believed to mimic a cat pheromone . It is a volatile compound, which means it vaporizes to a gas easily, even at room temperature. When cats inhale it, nepetalactone binds to nerves in their noses. This leads to a chain of reactions between the nose and the brain. First, the signal travels to the olfactory bulb, where all information about smells goes. Then, it signals the amygdala , which is the brain’s control center for behavior.

 

It is also thought to activate a chemical response of joy, similar to the “endorphin rush” humans get after completing some tough exercise or while eating a bar of really good chocolate. The difference is, the joy the cats feel is much stronger!

 

Catnip is a plant that has captured our imagination for centuries. We used to make poultices from it to treat infections, and now we use it for stimulation for our pets. Do you have a cat? If you did, would you give it a catnip?

Glossary

Amygdala: The region of the brain that controls behavior

 

Nepetalactone: A volatile compound contained in the leaves, stems, and flowers of Nepeta cataria

 

Pheromone: A chemical that can be smelled easily

 

Volatile: A substance that evaporates easily, even at room temperature

Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 59.4

 

Flesch Kinkaid Reading Ease: 8

Contributors

  • Yamini Srikanth
    : Author
    Yamini's (he/they) interests lie in environmental education, science communication and trying to build a better world. When not languishing in front of his laptop, they can be found outside, poking at any insect, bird or plant. They love making science accessible, especially to those who aren't encouraged to pursue it. Yamini hopes that the young women who read Smore love learning from their articles and get just a little bit more excited about science!

Copyright @smorescience. All rights reserved. Do not copy, cite, publish, or distribute this content without permission.


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