The Chemistry of Catnip

Michelle Willis, CVT
Veterinary Information Specialist 

Any cat owner knows that catnip holds some awesome power. It is entertaining for both the cat and owner to watch its effects unfold. Rolling, drooling, and face rubbing from Catnip has been reported since the 1700s. Have you ever wondered why the magical plant does what it does?

The basics: What is catnip?
Catnip is not a weed, like commonly thought. Catnip comes from the mint family and is formally known as Nepeta cataria. As it grows naturally, flowers can be white and finely spotted with pale purple or pink. The plant is reported to be a hearty one; is thought to be deer resistant, as well as able to grow in droughts. The plant is native to Europe, Asia and Africa, but can now be found elsewhere.

How does it work? The nose knows!
The plant N. cataria produces a compound nepetalactone, which causes the reaction in the cat’s brain. (Tune out now if you don’t want the scientific process of how it works 😊). The scent of nepetalactone is sensed by the tissues of the nose. There is some protein bonding in there that leads these signals to the parts of the brain in charge of behavioral and emotional responses. This is very similar to a pheromone response from cats in heat, or even cat urine. Originally the process was thought to include the highly sensitive Jacobson’s organ or vomeronasal organ. Located in the roof of the mouth, it contains ducts that lead to the mouth and to the nose. However, this has been disproven.

And then, the fun begins…
The effects of catnip last around 10-15 minutes. They generally include rolling, face rubbing, chewing, drooling, vocalization and other entertaining actions. Then, your cat will become “immune” for 1-2 hours as the brain sort of “resets”. You may have noticed, also, that catnip is not effective on kittens. This may have something to do with the pheromone-like response…it’s not effective until sexual maturity is reached.  It is reported that approximately 70% of adult cats will become affected by the scent of catnip. Heredity plays a role in the response a cat has to catnip. Use caution during your cat’s play with catnip, as it may cause them to playfully bite/scratch more/differently than normal since their inhibitions are lowered.

It’s not just for housecats.
It’s not just for domesticated cats. Lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, and snow leopards have all been reported to have similar responses to catnip. Many zoos use this and other mint products as part of environmental enrichment programs for their captive guests.

As far as humans, catnip does not produce the same pheromone-like effect that it does in feline, as our brains are wired differently. It has been used in herbal teas, as an ingredient in skin salve and other useful applications such as insecticides. Historically, it was used to treat ailments such as anxiety, cold and other upper respiratory infections, but has since fallen out of fashion as there is not a lot of data back it up.

From a toxicological standpoint, no significant toxicity is expected in either humans or cats. In humans, catnip abuse may cause vomiting (if large quantities are ingested), headaches and malaise/lethargy.

Coming back to our domesticated cats, it can be used as a training tool and also be used to help alleviate some of the fear in stressful situations such as car rides, and visits at the veterinarian. Now that you know a little more of the chemistry of catnip, I encourage you to use it often for your feline friend.