By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 7 January 2015)
Catnip, a member of the mint family, contains nepetalactone, a substance that causes euphoria in more than half of all cats over 3 months of age (Hodgkins, 2007). Most very young kittens don’t respond to it, though I’ve seen a few exceptions over the years. Other names for catnip are catmint, catrup, field balm, field wort, catswort, and nepeta cataria.
Catnip and Cat Health
Cats can’t become addicted to catnip, though they may stop responding to it with frequent exposure. Catnip has no adverse health consequences for cats. It makes them happy, and has the added benefit of diverting them from snacking on houseplants.
Cats need to snack on greenery from time to time, and while keeping cats indoors is safer due to the dangers facing outdoor cats, the indoor lifestyle deprives them of natural fresh-growing grass. Catnip is easy to grow, and owners may wish to create a little cat garden in a low pot or tray, with catnip and cat grass (barley, rye, or oats) to provide indoor cats with some greens.
Many cats just sniff or roll in catnip, but some like to eat it. Eating a lot of catnip may make a cat throw up, which can happen when cats eat any harmless plant, including grass (see pet-safe plants and toxic plants for lists of harmless and harmful plants). If your cat has a tendency to gobble fresh or dried catnip and then vomit, switch to catnip toys.
Catnip as an Herbal Remedy for People
Catnip has traditionally been used as an herbal remedy for a variety of conditions, including insomnia, nervousness, anxiety, migraine headaches, and stomach complaints (such as indigestion). No clinical studies have been conducted to confirm these effects, though anecdotal reports suggest that catnip may provide some benefits. Many believe that smoking catnip or eating large amounts of it will cause euphoria and excitement, but there is no evidence to support this.
Those who take catnip as an herbal remedy buy it in oral liquid or capsule form, or brew a tea with dried catnip. Catnip intended for pets should never be consumed by humans because it contains other plant products. Catnip is also used externally to treat swelling and inflammation. In this case, flowers or leaves are soaked in water and then applied as a poultice.
Taking catnip internally is dangerous for pregnant women as relaxation effects on the uterus may induce miscarriage. It may also worsen pelvic inflammatory disease. There is no clinical information as to whether it’s safe for children to consume catnip, so women who are breast-feeding should not consume catnip as they may pass it along to their babies through the milk.
Catnip overdose in humans has been reported to cause fatigue and mild headache. Because catnip may cause drowsiness in people, it should not be taken in conjunction with alcohol or with medications and herbs that cause drowsiness. Always consult a health care provider before taking catnip medicinally.
Catnip’s risks to humans usually occur only with ingestion. As long as you’re not eating it, having it around and touching it should present no problems, unless you’re allergic to mint or other plants in the mint family.
Catnip Pest Repellent Effects
Catnip is a potent pest repellent. Grown in a garden, it can be used as a form of natural pest control, providing some protection against aphids, corn earworms, cucumber beetles, flea beetles, Japanese beetles, squash bugs, and mice. Oil extracted from catnip plants is also 10 times more effective than a popular commercial product in repelling mosquitoes (American Chemical Society, 2001).
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- American Chemical Society. (2001, August 28). “Catnip Repels Mosquitoes More Effectively Than DEET.” www.sciencedaily.com.
- Drug Digest. (2008). “Catnip.” DrugDigest.org.
- Hodgkins, Elizabeth M., DVM. (2007). Your Cat: Simple New Secrets to a Longer, Stronger Life. Thomas Dunne Books.