Catnip (lat. Nepete cataria) is a flowering plant from the family of mint plants (lat. Lamiaceae). It is native to parts of Europe and Asia, but it has been widely naturalized in North America too. It is sometimes also referred to as catswort, catwort, catmint or field balm. Although most commonly recreationally used for the pleasure and amusement of cats, it is also occasionally cultivated as a decorative plan and as an attractant of butterflies in gardens. It can be used for the production of insect repellent substances, as well as tea infusions and medicinal products for people.
Why are cats attracted to catnip?
The main chemical compound of the essential oil in catnip is the terpenoid nepetalactone. Nepetalactone is an organic substance which acts as an attractant to domestic cats, as well as some wild cats such as leopards, cougars, servals and lynxes (source). Cats detect nepetalactone through the epithelial tissue in the nasal cavity, where the substance binds to the olfactory receptors. This provokes a response in neurons which stimulate the regions in brain and hypothalamus which control emotional and sexual responses.
The response period lasts between 5 and 15 minutes. Most cats respond to catnip by rubbing against it, rolling around, licking or pawing at the plant, chewing it or trying to rub it around the face. However, if a cat consumes too much, they may become sleepy or anxious and agitated. In such instances, you might notice drooling, leaping, growling or meowing, scratching or even biting.
Do all cats react to catnip?
Interestingly enough, not all domestic cats react to this plant in the same way. About one-third of cats don't respond to catnip at all. It was established that sensitivity to catnip in domestic cats is hereditary, but the trait is polygenic (factored by multiple genetic factors), so it is difficult to predict and analyze the genes involved in sensitivity to this herb.
Applications in toys and training
Catnip can be used in entertainment and training of domestic cats which respond to it. For instance, if you have problems with your cat scratching furniture, you can make the scratching post more appealing by rubbing it with some catnip. Did you buy your cat a new cat tree they seem to be avoiding? Popularize it with some catnip. Options are endless, you just need to use your imagination. You can also utilize this "magic" plant to enrich your cat's environment (which is particularly important for strictly indoor cats). For example, if you add catnip to your cat's toy (or an old sock), you can provide it with some fun play time. Some people also like to grow their own catnip herbs, which may help keep the kitty out of your plant pots.
Catnip is generally safe and non-addictive. The intensity of your cat's response will depend on the type of the herb you use, of course, which is something you will have to consider when buying this for your cat. If you are unsure whether or not it's OK to use catnip for your cat for any reason, always consult with a veterinary professional first.