What Is Catnip, Exactly, and How Does It Work?

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Regularly dosing your cat with a psychoactive drug is probably one of the stranger aspects of being a cat parent.

Of course, I’m talking about catnip — that magical substance that makes cats roll on the ground, drooling and mashing their faces into it.

At the same time, catnip doesn’t seem to have any effect on other animals at all, and it’s definitely not making us humans drool and roll around.

I don’t know about you, but that left me pretty curious about what catnip actually is, and how it works.

What Is Catnip, Exactly?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is actually a perennial herb that is a member of the mint family. It’s easy to grow, and in some regions it spreads so easily that it’s considered invasive like a weed.

Humans have been using this herb for medicinal qualities for centuries, and its use in herbal teas was happening as far back as the 1600s in Europe. Mostly these days, it’s known for having sedative properties similar to chamomile.

In addition, catnip also works as a mosquito repellent. It is from the mint family, after all. Scientists actually discovered that it’s actually more powerful than DEET, though it wears off more quickly.

How Does Catnip Work on Cats?

However, we all really know that catnip’s true purpose is for felines! But how does this plant attract and affect our cats?

The plant’s leaves and stems contain a chemical compound called nepetalactone.

When sniffed by a cat, nepetalactone acts like a stimulant, producing a high that has been described as being similar to that of marijuana or LSD. I have no idea how this was determined, but I wish I could have been a part of that research.

When inhaled, the chemical binds to the receptors inside a cat’s nose, which stimulate sensory neurons leading to the brain. According to research, it appears to alter activity in several areas of the brain — including the hypothalamus, which is involved in regulating the cat’s emotions.

In other words, nepetalactone triggers an intense, intoxicated reaction in most cats.

But, not all cats. It’s estimated that catnip affects around 70 percent of cats, and it seems like the trait is passed on genetically. And there’s no in-between either — they either react, or they don’t.

Even wild cats, like lions and tigers, are susceptible to the wiles of catnip.

It’s important to note that sensitivity to catnip doesn’t develop for a bit. Young kittens aren’t affected by nepetalactone, so they won’t start having fun with it until they are several months old.

Research doesn’t point to any negative health effects, and cats never develop a tolerance over time. So feel free to give your feline friend all the catnip they want.