Why Do Cats Like Catnip?
What is Catnip
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a flowering plants in the family Lamiaceae, the mints.
There are a number of varieties within the mints and Catnips. Some very pretty catnip varieties have been developed. These tend to be called "cat mint".
Early settlers brought catnip plants with them. Catnip tea is considered soothing and it was used much as Chamomile.
Why is it Attractive to Cats?
This is a question that has not been absolutely answered yet!
This is what we know:
- The Active ingredient of Catnip is Nepetalactone (see sidebox)
- Catnip is not a "drug" or a narcotic.
- The nepetalactone is an essential oil released when the catnip plant is bruised. Until the catnip is bruised many cats do not react to it at all.
- When a cat encounters catnip, it usually sniffs it, rubs and rolls against it, licks it & finally eats the catnip. It's the sniffing that produces the cat reaction.
- Its chemical structure is similar to that of the valepotriates derived from the herb valerian (Valeriana officinalis) which also has a catnip-like effect on some cats. Similarly active compounds are actinidine found in valerian, iridomyrmecin, dihydroactinidiolide and matatabilactone.
- Catnip resembles a component of female cat urine odorant MMB and some people have suggested that catnip might mimic kitty sex communication pheromones. There is no difference in reaction in cats that are neutered, males or females.
- Several insects use nepetalactone as an element of their pheromones some of them are, Parabemus fossor: a beetle, Graeffea crouani: stick insect, Aphidus colemani: a type of aphid,
- There is no know danger to cats who eat catnip. If they eat too much they might puke but they are not poisoned. Catnip is mildly sedative and this might make the cat sleepy. Hard to tell really because a cats sleeps 15 hours a day anyway!
- Typically the reaction to catnip lasts about 5-10 minutes then the cat will be quiet and sleep. Some cats get aggressive, others will play. Some cats just want to roll around in the catnip. The cats will not react to catnip for another 2 hours.
- Nepetalactone enters the feline's nose. Cats detect it through their olfactory epithelium. Some evidence suggests that it is not through their vomeronasal organ (an auxiliary olfactory sense organ that is found in cats). At the olfactory epithelium, the nepetalactone binds to one or more olfactory receptor.
Are all Cats Attracted to Catnip?
- Age has an effect. Wee kittens less than 12 weeks do not react or are repelled or afraid of the smell. Older cats also have a reduced reaction.
- All species of cats (Felidae) including Big Cats react to catnip. It is not limited to house cats.
- 30 % or more cats do not react at all to catnip. Cats that come from areas where catnip is common are more likely to react. Many Australian cats do not react to it. Reaction to catnip is hereditary and is a dominant trait. It is carried on a normal chromosome NOT a sex chromosome.
Big Cat Rescue video with Catnip
Can I Grow Catnip?
Catnip is a hardy perennial and comes back each spring and is easy to grow, if no one eats it out of the ground. Seedlings are available from garden stores herb sections. It is also easy to grow from seed.
I often just throw some store bought catnip in the ground and there are enough seeds to provide catnip all season. It likes sun but will tolerate almost full shade.
It is native to Europe & Asia, however catnip has become naturalized in America & Canada after being introduced. There are approximately 250 species of Catnip, and this figure doesn't include hybrid species
To dry, just cut and hang out of reach of cats. When it's dry, place in a closed container or plastic bag and serve as required.
It is a common weed and once you know what it looks like it is easy to recognize. The smell is distinctive. Various varieties are more or less attractive to cats.
Garden stores tend to call the prettier varieties "catmint", and the regular ordinary plant "catnip". Cat's don't care about the appearance.
Bees really like catnip as do many of the other pollinating insects such as the large carpenter bee and of course butterflies.
When I went to harvest the catnip patch last year there were so many honey bees on it that I did not have the heart to take it away from them. I just took enough for my cats and left the rest to the poor little bees.
Here is a link to my page on Plants that Attract Butterflies
As an added bonus, for a few weeks later in the summer, the catnip patch was full of little American Goldfinch eating seeds. I'd never noticed them before. They really blend in well.
Many butterflies and little bees come to catnip.
Catnip should be harvested while it is still flowering but slightly later in the season. At that point it will have gotten a bit woodier. If you harvest earlier the plants don't have as much concentrated essence as later. They also take much longer to dry. For fresh use it does not matter.
Are there Other Plants like Catnip?
Valerian, Silver Vine, Honeysuckle, are some plants that also attract cats. See my article about plants that cat like.
Catnip's chemical structure is similar to that of the valepotriates derived from the herb valerian (Valeriana officinalis) which also has a catnip-like effect on some cats
Valerian plant from my garden. The cats were interested but not as much as for the catnip. I did not try the root. The flower has a sweet cherry smell but the dried root smells terrible.
Catnip as a Bug RepellantIowa State University found that the nepetalactone in catnip is a mosquito repellant. It is more effective than DEET. Catnip probably does not last as long since it is volatile but catnip is not toxic.
It also repels ticks, termites, and cockroaches.
Mice and Rats also seem to dislike the smell and it used to be planted to repel them. (Maybe it just attracts more cats!)
Actinidine, a compound found in valerian and silver vine, is a also a pheromone for a variety of insects. It is used for the biological control of some insects.
Why would a plant develop a chemical that makes it attractive and more likely to be eaten by cats? It's ability to repel insects is probably the reason. Catnip puts off a smell that repels some insects that would eat it. That cats like it too, is just bad luck for the catnip plant. It is interesting that some insects such as the walking sticks have a similar compound in them presumably to make themselves less attractive as a meal to other insects.
I have personally used catnip as a bug repellant. While I was sanding a boat outside, I started getting bothered by biting flies. I rubbed some fresh catnip on myself and for about one half hour I did not get a single bite. I had to repeat again, but it's not toxic and it works.
I've also made an alcohol mixture and tried that as an insect repellent. It works but not as well as commercial bug spray. This is probably because it is not really very concentrated. I also tried distilling catnip and this worked much better but the yields are not high. It takes a lot of catnip to make a very small amount of oil.
Human use of Catnip
Catnip leaf tea was a popular beverage and like chamomile tea, the catnip tea has a mild sedative effect on humans. The herb has been used as a remedy for colic, minor aches and pains in the gums and teeth, indigestion, and as a help to sleep. Valerian is often also used to calm and help sleep. It had many uses in the early days and catnip escapees from the North American European settlers garden adapted and thrive now wild.
Catnip, uses for humans Medicinal and other uses of catnip.
This article is provided for information only. It is not to be used instead of consulting a VET. If your kitty is sick get some help. Catnip is not poisonous but if your cat is in distress get some help.