What is Catnip and How Does it Work?

Cat Hiding in Flower Pot Staring With Cat Eyes
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We've all heard about a feline's drug of choice: catnip. Used as a behavioral aid, a treat, or even grown in the yard, catnip has many uses. But what is it exactly?

What is catnip?

Belonging to the Lamiaceae family, better known as the mint family, its scientific name is Nepita cataria but we know it by catnip, catmint, catwort, or even field balm. You know what they say---a catnip by any other name still smells psychedelic to our feline friends!

Commonly considered an invasive weed outdoors, this plant, which is native to Europe and parts of Asia, has a tendency to take over a garden space. Its lush green leaves and petite white flowers can be truly intoxicating to cats.

The orange cat and the catnip.
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Are all cats affected by catnip:

While we know that catnip is like a kitty "upper," not all cats are actually susceptible to its euphoric effects. Some cats are born completely immune to catnip. For them, it is just another plant. While the oil in catnip, called nepetalactone, can hit a cat on all senses, approximately 50 percent of felines don't actually have the genetic trait necessary to be affected. If your kitten is affected by catnip, you won't know until she is several months old. It takes time for the trait to make itself known, so young kittens won't show a response.

cat and Nepeta cataria
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What happens to a cat when they smell catnip?

The effect of catnip on cats is pretty interesting. When your favorite feline gets a whiff or a taste of the catnip oil, she'll start to show behaviors common to cats that are in heat. She may rub her body or face on the plant, she might wiggle and jump around, or even chirp and salivate. All of this activity lasts for about ten or fifteen minutes and then is followed by a languid period during which she will not be susceptible to the herb.

The power of the plant is in that nepetalactone essential oil. When your feline fluffball gets up close and personal with catnip, the oil interacts with the nasal receptors in his nose. Then, it binds with the protein receptors that stimulate sensory neurons ultimately interacting with the areas of your feline's brain called the amygdala and the hypothalamus. The amygdala controls everything from information coming in through the cat's nose to his behavior responses, and the hypothalamus helps to regulate emotions and feelings like hunger or sexual response. So, in effect, when your cat smells catnip, he's basically responding the same way he would if he were up close and personal with some kitty pheromones.

Tabby cat playing
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Is catnip safe for cats?

The short answer here is yes. If your cat does have a genetic predisposition to be affected by catnip, it is perfectly safe. While there may be some mildly hallucinogenic effects or seemingly crazy behavior exhibited by your four-legged furball, she's not going to have any negative long-term effects from sniffing catnip. And, you don't have to worry that your cat will get hooked--catnip is not addictive.

blue mouse
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Does catnip affect humans?

While catnip can take your cat on a wild trip, it does not affect humans the same way. That being said, it has been used as a mild sedative when brewed in a tea meant for human consumption. Additionally, there is a long list of holistic medicinal properties catnip has for people, making it a pretty solid addition to any cat lover's garden. So, while there are definitely human foods that cats shouldn't eat, catnip is safe for both cats and humans.