What is Catnip?

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Blue eyed cat

What is Catnip?

And why do our feline friends fancy it?

Nepita cataria has gone by many names including the popular catnip, but also catsword and catmint.  It has become so common for cats and their humans that it’s just about everywhere.  And with good reason, cats love it, their antics provide us with amusement, plus it’s both natural and safe!  But have you stopped to wonder what it is or where it came from?  If you did, you might be surprised.

What is Catnip?

Catnip actually comes from the mint family of plants.  That’s right!  And it contains what’s called nepetalacatone, which is what makes cats love it so much.  Cats detect this volatile through a scent organ in the roof of their mouth rather than in their noses.  In fact, domestic and wild cats are both attracted certain plants within this genus, including leopards, cougars, servals, and lynxes.  The plant is native to southern and eastern parts of Europe, as well as the Middle East, Central Asia, China, New Zealand, and even North America.  Some believe however that it was the ancient Egyptians that were the first to cultivate the plant our felines love so much today.

When the leaves or stems of this plant are bruised, cats can sense the nepetalacatone.  What follows next is usually a cat like ballet of pawing, scratching, rolling, licking and a myriad of other moves.

Consuming the plant can cause cats to drool, become drowsy or sleepy, induce anxiety, cause bouts of frenetic activity such as leaping about, or purring.  If you or another human is holding the catnip, cats have been known to growl or meow, scratch and/or bite that hand.

If you’ve wondered why these ballets commonly last between five and 15 minutes, this is due to olfactory fatigue, also known as nose blindness.  After a certain length of time, cats lose their ability to detect the nepetalacatone and will generally lose interest until the next time.

Is your cat not affected by or interested in catnip? He or she isn’t alone.  It’s estimated that one out of three cats does not react to this popular family of plants.  Scientists have shown this to be due to genetics.

Catnip and Humans

Cats aren’t the only ones to have found a love for this family of plants.  Cat Nip has been used by humans throughout history.  Commonly it was used to make teas or tinctures to treat ailments.  Catnip is also great for getting rid of unwanted bugs, so much so that many use it today in the form of its essential oil.  And many find it a great ornamental plant to include in their gardens.  And why not? It’s drought tolerant, deer resistant, and can ward off destructive bugs like aphids.  Rumor has it that some have even smoked the plant.