What is Catnip?

What is Catnip? Cat's Love It, But Why?

Cat enjoying catnip plants (Photo: Wiki Commons)


What Am I Giving My Cat?

As an indoor cat lover (yes I firmly believe in keeping cats ONLY indoors), I find it nearly impossible to go to any pet store without seeing catnip this or buying catnip laced that. Catnip is one of those plants everyone hears about, or sees in garden shops, but what is catnip?

Catnip Nepeta Cataria (or Nepeta sp), also known as catmint, is not a plant that is native to North America. It was brought to the US by colonists and settlers. It originates in Europe with species in Asia and Africa. It is an herbaceous perennial in the family Lamiaceae, which is the mint or dead nettle family. It grows to be about about 2-3 feet tall, and like all mints it has a square stem (which is a great diagnostic tool in the field). The leaves of catnip are triangular to somewhat oval, up to 3" long, and are usually serrate. The leave's surfaces are hirsute (I just love that term, meaning hairy) and covered in a fine down, especially on the underside of the leaf. Catnip leaves are very similar to the leaves of mint plants that people grow for tea. I once had a coworker of mine mix the two up when we went out to our garden. She ended up chewing on catnip instead of mint and made some great funny faces! (it's fine for human consumption but the flavor is somewhat bitter).

Catnip leaves and stem (Photo: Wiki Commons).
Common mint leaves look very similar to catnip, though they smell very different. (Photo: Wiki Commons).

The flowers of catnip, much like other mints, are usually purplish, pink, or a white color. They grow in spiked clusters at the top of the plant. Catnip bloom from Spring through Autumn and spread like wildfire. If you've ever planted mint in your garden you know what I'm talking about. The runners of mint and catnip can take over if not contained and pruned frequently. However, catnip flowers are a gardener's friend because they attract bees and other pollinators like butterflies.

The flower head of catnip, with a purplish white head, attracts pollinators. (Photo: Wiki Commons).

Mint and catnip have a great fragrance because of the volatile oils in their leaves. In catnip it's called terepenoid nepetalactone. This oil can be distilled from the fresh plant through methods using steam. The oils have been studied as calming agents and for their antimicrobial properties. Recent studies have shown that the oils are effective antimicrobial agents when used for oral pathogens (as an oral rinse) including bacteria and Candida. The oils have also been shown to work against food-borne pathogens, and they are being studied for possible use as a natural preservative agent for food.

Planting catnip around a garden can help distract cats and deter pests. (Photo: Wiki Commons).

There's along tradition of planting catnip in gardens because of their oils too. Catnip leaves repel aphids, squash bugs, and other garden pests. Very notably this also includes German cockroaches. Dihydronepetalactone, which is a  natural part of the catnip oils, is the main substance that is used in the repellent compounds of many commercial insect repellents. These oils repel the insects but don't kill them. In case studies of termites the oils repelled the termites making them move away from the treated area but not causing mortality. However, these oils are showing promise for use in repelling the malaria mosquito, house mosquitoes, brown ear ticks, and red poultry mites. Catnip is ten times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET. Wait, let me repeat that, 10 times more effective! But the upshot is that it lasts only a few hours. There are patent applications pending for research of catnip compounds. You'll probably see these on the market soon. For humans catnip is also recognized for its medicinal attributes to help with cramps, relieve migraines and headaches, insomnia, and indigestion.

The Chemistry of Catnip from Compound Interest 2014 Creative Commons.

So why do cats like catnip, and is it bad for them?

The volatile oils of catnip are what attracts cats. The oil's scent enters the cat's nasal passage, connects/binds to the protein receptors in the tissues and stimulates a neurological response. Interestingly this response is inherited, it's genetic. 60-70% of cats respond to catnip, and others don't. If you have cats like mine that do respond they flop, roll, sniff, lick, and act like demented, but happy, wee beasts for about 10 minutes and then wander away. If cats eat catnip they can also become very mellow and chill. Some cats can also become very protective of their toys and nip too.

Our cat Luna enjoying a bit of nip. (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Cat's behavioral responses are likened to being sexually stimulated, especially females. Very young cats are not affected by the nip until they reach sexual maturity.The cats' behavior of rolling and face rubbing is similar to what they may do during courtship. This response is irregardless of if the cat has been fixed or not. The behaviors also do not correlate with an increase in killing behavior, fighting, or sexual mounting. Regardless, catnip doesn't hurt the cats. The effects last from 1-10 minutes and then wears off. They usually develop a nip immunity that lasts for an hour or two after their initial high. Eventually the immunity wears off and the cat will respond again in an hour or two. Catnip is a benign enrichment tool for cats, and doesn't hurt them. It only stimulates them for short periods of time, but it doesn't affect all cats.

If you grow catnip you can dry the stems and leaves by hanging them upside down in a cool dry place. Store bought catnip works too, with varying success, but for both grown and pre-dried varieties you should keep them in the freezer in an airtight container so that they don't lose potency. The volatile oils can fade over time.

You may be wondering, do non-domesticated cats respond to catnip? You bet! Lions and jaguars are extremely sensitive to catnip, while responses from tigers, cougars, and bobcats vary. I found this out first hand when doing some filming behind the scenes in a cat enclosure with lions, they kept a spray bottle of catnip (from the normal pet store) on hand for the lion's toys.

Regardless, catnip is harmless to cats but can offer many benefits in the garden, including being an insect repellent and good for human health. Who knows, maybe if you plant catnip on the borders of your garden you can distract the local felines from the rest of your garden space. It might be worth planting a patch just to find out.