The Science of Catnip

What is green, looks like something illegal at a quick glance, and drives cats insane? Well if your answer was anything other than catnip, I’d like to know what it was you were thinking of! Catnip, that glorious green herb that seems to make every cat think it is swimming in a sea of brightly colored mice and canned food. So what is catnip and why does it drive cats crazy?

Nepeta Cataria, the Magical Mint!

Catnip, scientifically named “Nepeta Cataria” is a member of the mint family. Native to Europe and parts of Asia, this plant on average grows around 30 inches tall and buds pale pink to deep purple flowers. The strong aroma is a natural repellent to both flies and mosquitoes; oil isolated from catnip is 10 times stronger than DEET. It is also known to attract beneficial insects that eat aphids and mites; and even repel deer, making this attractive plant a great addition to any garden. As for human consumption, catnip has been brewed in teas all around the world and also used as a culinary herb in many cuisine dishes.

Quick Facts About Catnip

  • In oil form, catnip is a natural repellent to flies, mosquitoes, and several other irritating pests.
  • Catnip attracts beneficial insects to your garden, such as butterflies.
  • It is used as herbal medicine for humans in tea form to treat colds, infections, toothaches, and headaches.
  • The catnip “high” a feline experiences only last 5 to 15 minutes.
  • Only cats with a specific gene will experience the effects of catnip.
  • Kittens do not develop the sensitivity to catnip till around 3 to 6 months old.
  • Much like effects of euphoric drugs on humans, the catnip high is followed by loss of energy, drowsiness, and sleepiness.
  • There are many ways for your cat to enjoy catnip. Read more about them here: Different Types Of Catnip

So what is it about this mint herb makes cats tick?

Researchers are puzzled by the effects it has neurologically on cats, but they believe it to mimic a feline’s “happy” pheromones by stimulating the receptors in the brain. The volatile oil “nepetalactone” found in catnip is believed to bind to protein receptors that are responsible for stimulating sensory neurons. The cells then trigger a response in the neurons of the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb is responsible for projecting several parts of the brain which include the amygdala and the hypothalamus, which is part of regulating anything from hunger, to emotions.

This is not the case when the nip is directly ingested. When a cat eats the nip he or she will become very passive and mellow. Not all cats act the same from the scent. Most cats will become hyperactive and sporadic, while others will become paranoid and aggressive. As kittens, until they reach 3 to 6 months old, they do not have the sensitivity to the herb and will not react. Some adult cats never grow this gene and simply do not respond to the herb at all. Cats can not overdose on catnip, so do not worry about giving them too much. However, they only need about a teaspoon at a time to get going. The “high” only lasts 5 to 15 minutes, then the stimulation weakens and catnip loses its effects after about 30 minutes to an hour.

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