Even the laziest feline couch potato can go into overdrive with a single whiff of catnip. Virtually all felines, from the adorable domestic cat to tigers and panthers go crazy over the fragrant herb (don’t believe me? Watch the embedded video below). And, you might be surprised to learn that catnip also works on humans — it’s just that it has soothing, almost sedative effects on us.
But why do cats, big or small, seem to adore catnip?
What is catnip anyway?
Catnip (Neparia cataria) is a minty, lemony herb originally from Europe and Asia, although you can also find it growing in the Americas as well, particularly along roads and highways.
It’s one of about 250 species of plants in the mint family, with a leafy green appearance. But out of all these hundreds of minty varieties, felines seem to go crazy only for catnip. In fact, the herb has long been associated with cats. Even the scientific name of the plant, ‘cataria‘, means “of a cat” in Latin.
What are the effects of catnip?
You might have noticed that not all cats respond in the same way to catnip. Some go berzerk just by inhaling a few odor molecules of nepetalactone, the essential oil found in catnip, while others act totally disinterested.
It seems that only 70% of cats have a reaction to catnip, a sensitivity that is hereditary. What’s more, this sensitivity to catnip only emerges after a cat is at least three to six months old. So, your kitten shouldn’t respond to catnip at all.
Housecats that are sensitive to catnip will typically react by rolling, flipping, rubbing on the floor, and basically any object in their vicinity, especially if these objects are laced with catnip oils.
According to veterinarians, the nepetalactone binds to receptors found inside the cat’s nose, stimulating sensory neurons and altering activity in several key areas of the brain. These include the olfactory bulb (where smell is processed), the amygdala (where strong emotions such fear or pleasure are processed), and the hypothalamus (which regulates automated functions).
Some believe that the essential oils found in catnip mimic the effects of pheromones. But regardless of the neural mechanisms involved, one thing’s for sure: some cats love catnip to death!
In fact, one could argue that catnip is the only recreational drug that humans routinely give to animals.
Although catnip might look like cocaine or some other hard drug, the truth is that a feline’s frenzied reaction to the minty shrub isn’t actually chaotic and uncontrollable but rather very predictable and definite.
Cats on catnip will pretty much behave the same way every time: they’ll start rubbing their faces and rolling their bodies on the surface laced with catnip simply because the high compels them to do so. After an initial phase of euphoria, about half an hour later cats will typically calm down and look a bit buzzed.
The dose of catnip and how your cat consumes it will result in different responses. Typically, the more your cat eats or inhales it, the stronger the effect.
As stated earlier, not all cats respond to catnip, but those that do don’t seem to be negatively affected in any way, nor do they develop tolerance over time to the nepetalactone and other oils found in catnip.
Do humans get high on catnip too?
Which cat owner hasn’t tried taking a big whiff out of their feline’s stash, only to be miserably disappointed. Humans do not share the same olfactory and brain machinery as cats do that allows nepetalactone to bind to receptors.
However, catnip does have an effect on people. When brewed in a tea, the minty shrub is known to produce a mild sedative effect.
Believe it or not, during the 1960s some researchers claimed that catnip could give people a marijuana-like high. But that’s just fake news. It later turned out that the researchers in question had simply mixed up the two plants.
So, no, catnip doesn’t get humans high. What’s more, if you smoke catnip or drink too much tea, it can cause headaches, vomiting, and make you feel generally sick.
Bottom line: Catnip contains volatile oils that make cats enter a frenzy when they inhale them. However, catnip is non-addictive and completely harmless. In humans, catnip is non-psychoactive and can produce a mild sedative effect in moderate doses.