Nepeta cataria is the species name for this hardly little herb commonly called Catnip. This Asian/ European native has become naturalized all over the U.S. and is deliberately grown for a variety of reasons, only one of which is its use as a natural psychoactive plant for cats. Its use in cats has been known for centuries; its name suggests that its influence over the cat was known at time of its official description and scientific naming. But it also has a number of uses in the human world, from an ornamental hardy (to invasive) garden plant, to a holistic medical panacea and a potent insect repellent.
Nepeta is in the Lamiaceae family which also includes other herbs such as basil, oregano, sage, lavender, thyme, mints and many, many more. Many of these plants are sources for a variety of essential oils--some flavorful, some noxious. In the case of Nepeta, the mild oils within are somewhat attractive to some animals (cats in particular) while being noxious or repellent to others (notably deer and insects). It is this ability to repel potential predators that is suspected to be the evolutionary force behind the existence of this product in catnip.
Cat in garden of catnip, and cat lounging afterwards (first photo chicochi3)
Nepeta cataria is a smallish herb, growing up to 3 feet tall and forming a low, fuzzy shrub with dusty-looking leaves and purple and white flowers. The leaves, stems and seed pods of this plant have microscopic sacs all over them (trichomes) that contain the oils that contain the active products that affect cats and humans. These sacs, or bulbs, are delicate and are easily ruptured with minimal contact, releasing the substances within. The primary active ingredient is a chemical called nepetalactone. This chemical is released into the air and inhaled to cause its effect on cats. Though cats will eat catnip, this does not directly affect them. They have to breathe in the substance.
Nepeta cataria (photos by HarryNJ and melody)
leaf details of Nepeta cataria (photos by jadewolf and Gabrielle)
In humans, this product along with perhaps other oils and chemicals in this plant are used for all sorts of things including pain killing, treating colds, relieving digestive disorders, assisting with menstruation, as a stimulant for urination, as an anti-inflammatory, and as a stimulant as well as a sedative (it seems to have different effects in different people.) It is even known to be a mild hallucinogen. Additionally it is used to make a tea and it is smoked. Its effect as an insect repellent is impressive, though very short lasting, unfortunately.
kittens appear totally unaffected by Catnip
Its effect on cats is not entirely understood, though it is clear what the results are. About one-half to two-thirds of exposed cats are affected by nepetalactone; but most kittens, old cats and the remaining fraction of other cats are apparently unaffected in any way. There is a definite genetic basis for ‘sensitivity' to catnip in cats. Sensitive cats will often be stimulated, seem ‘happy' (it has been determined to have a similar effect upon cats as sex pheromones have) and become emotionally ‘altered' for up to several hours. Whether or not cats hallucinate or what they are seeing/thinking while on catnip is not known... but then it is not known what cats are thinking any other times, either. After which the effects seem to wear off completely at which time these cats become tired and sleepy. This period of ‘immunity' is also short lived, and some 6 to 12 hours later, the same cats will be affected in the same ways all over again if exposed again to the drug. There are no apparent ill effects of this plant on cats and it seems an exceptionally safe product. No evidence for dependency has been discovered and no illnesses have been associated with inhaling or ingesting catnip (other than excessive ingestion causing some vomiting).
First there is a period of activity, sometimes peculiar.... then it is followed by a period of lethargy
Some other animals are affected by catnip as well, including some larger feline species, some dogs and raccoons. However none seem as dramatically affected as the domestic cat. For more on Catnip, see these sites: