What Is Catnip? Everything You Need to Know

what is catnip cover image featuring an illustration of catnip plant

The name “Catnip” gives you some idea that it must be something for cats. You may have even seen cats getting attracted to this plant, often sold in bottles and jars. But what is catnip and why are cats attracted to it? Guess what, not just cats, but even humans can get high on it! 

Getting the basics out first, catnip is a plant from the Lamiaceae family. The scientific name of this plant is Nepeta cataria, but the common names include catswort and catmint (which is very accurate because this plant tastes like mint).

Catnip is is a small plant with green, soft leaves that look very similar to mint leaves. The leaves have serrated edges and grow in clusters. Apart from the leaves, the plant also produces lilac/purple/white buds which makes it easier to recognize the plant. It can be grown in your garden but do keep in mind that they are invasive, which means they will take over your garden if left unchecked. 

Catnip is a wonderful plant and has been used not just for our feline friends but also for humans. Let’s get to know about it in detail. 

Why do cats like catnip? 

No, it’s not the leaves or the texture of the plant that attracts members of the cat family. The essential oil in the catnip plant has a chemical compound called nepetalactone. This nepetalactone is the reason why cats and other feline animals are attracted to the plant.

So what do cats feel after sniffing or licking catnip? Well, it has been studied a lot and the results are not concrete. What is agreed upon is that Nepetara makes cats feel “high” with some levels of sexual arousal as well. But the effect of catnips varies. 

A research paper by J. Grognet in 1990 found that when cats start giving vocal responses after introduced to catnip, it suggests that the cats are experiencing hallucinations. So the effects of this plant span a wide range, from arousal to hallucinations.

This mixture of effects is the reason why cats like or at least are intrigued by catnip. Some cats are excessively attracted to it while some cats are not very enthusiastic about it. This could be due to it can trigger arousal in some, a feeling of “high” in some, and hallucinations for some (which animals don’t like).

The use of catnip for cats is nothing therapeutic. Cats just like it and you can make your cat feel good by buying it for them. The effects of catnip wear off in about 20-25 minutes. The most common physical effect on cats is increased playfulness. Sometimes cats might get aggressive too. Cats also know when they have had enough of it, so there’s no risk of overdosing. 

Another interesting thing about catnips and cats is not all cats are equally affected by catnip. Some research has shown that genetics plays an important role in determining whether a cat likes nepetara or not. Most of the household cats, lions, tigers, cougars, leopards respond to catnip. 

But that doesn’t mean all the cats react to it. It is estimated that about one-third of the feline species do not react to catnip. And not just this plant, there are some other plants that have a similar effect on cats as catnip, albeit not that much.

leaves of the plant Nepeta Cataria, also called catnip
Image by Forest and Kim Starr. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Catnip for humans

We know that catnip is loved by most cats. It is a form of the recreational drug for them. But what if you tried sniffing catnip, or better, boiling the leaves and making catnip tea? Well, you won’t be the first one to do so because people have been using it for decades if not centuries. 

In humans, nepetalactone (the main compound of this plant) is processed and turned into neptalic acid. This is what causes various effects on humans. These effects range from therapeutic to hallucinogenic. 

Starting with the therapeutic effects, catnip is said to alleviate toothache, relieve sore muscles, bruises, hives, etc. Catnip tea is used as a herbal tea to keep the body cool. This tea is actually very common in some parts of Asia. The oil from this plant is also said to relieve cough. Whether it is therapeutic or not is unclear, but it does have some other effect that might attribute to its therapeutic uses. 

Catnip was and is used as an alternative to marijuana.  Research by A. Reed and B. Jackson has shown that when the leaves of this plant are dried and smoked, it can cause auditory and visual hallucinations in humans, very similar to the effects of marijuana. 

Smoking catnip was actually very popular in the 60s. It was also being used as the filler with marijuana. But the hallucinogenic uses of nepetara have declined because this plant could never rise to popularity, the way marijuana did. But another reason for the failure in the recreational drug area could be its selective effect on people. It might make someone high and have no effect on the other person. 

Apart from these, catnip is also an excellent natural insect repellent. It is said to work with cockroaches, flies, and mosquitoes. And since it is all-natural, there’s no harm to humans and animals, just those nasty insects. 

There’s no evidence currently that shows there are any major side-effects of consuming catnip, both for cats or humans. But as a general rule, never consume or let the animal consume too much of it. Catnip is easily available in the market in multiple forms. You can get concentrated oil, dried leaves, fresh leaves, etc. 

Here are some resources and citations: 

Nepetara causes hallucinogenic effects on cats : (Grognet J. Catnip: Its uses and effects, past and present. Can Vet J. 1990;31(6):455-456.)

Catnip’s effect on humans when smoked (as an alternative to marijuana), causing auditory and visual hallucinations:  (Jackson B, Reed A. Catnip and the Alteration of Consciousness. JAMA. 1969;207(7):1349–1350. doi:10.1001/jama.1969.03150200115019)

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