Most cat fanciers know how much cats love a good bag of catnip; also known as “catnep, catmint, catrup, catwort, nip, nep, and field Balm1”. Catnip when sniffed or eaten1 frequently creates a euphoric state in cats commonly resulting in vocalization, salivating, and purring. Just how does this common garden herb have such an effect on our feline family members?
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb and member of the mint family, Labiatae1. Native to Europe, Catnip was introduced to the Americas by early European colonists and is now widely grown in many gardens and enjoyed by countless cats across the continent1. Catnip was cultivate by early colonists for use as a tea or juice; to treat insomnia, colic, headaches, flatulence, and an emmenagogue (to induce menstruation), as a poultice for toothaches and in more recent years smoking as a hallucinogenic drug1.
Recently Catnip has been shown to contain oils that repel various insect species including “planthoppers and spittlebugs, German cockroaches, subterranean termites, mosquitoes and several beetle species2.” It has been shown to be even more potent than DEET, one of the most effective and popular misquote repellants currently on the market2.
As stated earlier for many cats the herb induces a wildly euphoric state described by one author as “frolicsome, amorous and full of battle3”. Catnip’s active constituent is a chemical called Nepetalactone1. In domestic cats response to nepetalactone is hereditary; hence cats that do not inherit the correct genes are immune to its effects. Kittens less than 6-8 weeks of age also do not react and full response in susceptible cats may not be evident until 3 months of age1. While not all domestic cats respond, catnip elicits similar effects on most nondomestic feline species including lions whereas, tigers and cheetahs seem to be immune1.
Some cat owners are fearful of long term hazardous effects of catnip, but the good news is that I was unable to find any study that documented deleterious side effects or dependency. For all intents and purposes catnip is a guilt free feline indulgence. Cat parents can consequently provide a constant amount of cat nip mice or cultivate the herb in gardens without fear of harming their feline friends.
1. Catnip: Its uses and effects, past and present. Can Vet J Volume 31, June 1990 Jeff Grognet
2. Catnip Attracts Cats and Repels Pests TheNEBLINE November/December 2003 page 6, Barb Ogg
3. Wren RC. Potter’s New Cyclopedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations. London: Potter Clarke Ltd., 1956: 71-72.