What is catnip, and why do felines love it?

Catnip drive felines crazy, causing them to roll around on the floor and paw at invisible birds flying in their vicinity, but why?

Humans have used catnip for recreational purposes, as smoking the substance produces some interesting effects. How does catnip affect felines and why does it cause such wild responses? Are cat owners willfully doping their pets?

What is catnip, and why do felines love it?

Catnip is another name for the herb Nepeta cataria, a relative of oregano and spearmint. Nepeta cataria is a pretty common plant, often found along highways and railroads in North America. Don't feed your cat any Nepeta cataria you might find along the side of the road, as it could contain an array of pesticides or harmful chemicals left over from railway construction like creosote.

The active molecule in Nepeta cataria is nepetalactone, which is believed to mimic a cat pheromone. Nepetalactone binds to a cat's olfactory receptors to produce catnip's unique response.

Owner's descriptions of the effects of catnip on their pets range from arousal to euphoria to sedation, with some cats drooling during exposure. One veterinarian suggested that the moans cats make while exposed to catnip are the result of chemically induced hallucinations. If a human exhibited these signs, we would likely be concerned, but most cat owners are comfortable with their feline's recreational drug problem.

Leaves from Nepeta cataria or nepetalactone oil extracts are used by cat owners to provoke their pets. Owners can crush Nepeta cataria to release the attractant that lies within bulbs of the herb or they can buy toys infused with an extract of the herb. Since the pheromone mimic affects the olfactory receptors, cats don't achieve any positive results from eating catnip. Consumption of the buds sends the active ingredient down the digestive tract, where it is degraded. A little less than half of cats are not attracted to catnip at all, with genetics playing a role in determining a cat's interest in the herb. Catnip, in large enough quantities, will also work as an attractant for large cats like lions and tigers.

Europeans in the 1400s regularly drank teas made from catnip, with the herb earning a medicinal application for treatment of colic and flatulence. Nepeta cataria is a member of the mint family, with tea brewed that possesses a flavor and smell similar to mint tea.

Smoking catnip became popular as an alternative to marijuana in the 1960s. When the herb is smoked, it produces a low level, legal high complete with audio/visual hallucinations and a relaxed feeling at a fraction of the cost. Concentrated doses of Nepeta cataria brewed as a tea can also produce a mild, short-term sedative effect in humans.

While catnip serves no real purpose other than allowing an owner to watch his or her cat go bonkers, there is no evidence that causes harms to cats either. If your pet is a little too sedate, toss it some catnip and liven things up.

Top image by Anastasija Popova via Shutterstock.Video of tigers under the influence of catnip courtesy of Big Cat Rescue. Sources linked within the article.