What Is Catnip — And Does It Work on People?

This herb is obviously a feline favorite, but humans can enjoy it too.

catnip plant
Photo: Zen Rial/Getty Images

If you live with a cat, you've likely witnessed the strange, hilarious, and sometimes shocking effects catnip can have on your feline friend.

If you're the curious sort, you may have wondered what exactly catnip does to cats — and if it does the same thing to humans? Here's what you need to know.

What Is Catnip?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a perennial herb in the mint family. It's native to southern and eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and parts of China.

The plant, which can grow to be a few feet high, blooms from late spring to fall. With green, triangular, toothed leaves, catnip strongly resembles other members of the mint family.

What Does It Do to Cats?

Catnip produces a chemical compound called nepetalactone. This compound, which just so happens to attract felines, is found in the microscopic bulbs that coat the plant's leaves and stems.

When cats smell catnip (fresh or dried), it triggers the "happy" receptors in the brain. Cats who have just inhaled catnip will roll, meow incessantly, run, jump, kick, play, and do other revelous activities.

Eating catnip, however, can have a calming effect. If your furry friend zones out after chowing down on some 'nip, don't panic: He's just high. These effects last about 10-15 minutes.

Is It Dangerous?

Owners of mellow cats might become concerned when their normally calm pet starts spazzing.

However, catnip is not dangerous in any amount — so stop worrying and enjoy the show.

Why Doesn't Catnip Affect My Cat?

Strangely, only about ⅔ of domestic cats experience catnip's effects. Experts think this sensitivity (or lack thereof) is hereditary.

What Does Catnip Do to People?

If you've ever thought about trying some of your cat's stash, slow your roll.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on who you ask), human brains and cat brains are very different. What has been proven time and time again to stimulate sensory neurons in cats hasn't been definitively proven to have the same impact on people.

However, there is some anecdotal evidence that catnip can act as a mild sedative on humans. The herb has seen its fair share of uses throughout history: Native Americans used the herb to calm colicky infants, while people in the 1960s used it in place of (or as a filler in) marijuana.

Catnip Tea

These days, humans who consume catnip generally drink it as a tea. The tea is widely believed to soothe anxiety and insomnia, as well as digestive troubles.

You can purchase catnip tea bags, or you can make it yourself. To brew your own catnip tea:

  1. Place 1-2 teaspoons of dried catnip in a teacup.
  2. Pour hot — not boiling — water into the cup.
  3. Let steep for 10-15 minutes.

Other Catnip Uses

Unlike felines, mosquitos and flies hate catnip. Many people choose to use the plant as a natural insect repellent.

If you choose to plant catnip in your yard, take heed: Yes, it may take care of your bug problem — but unless you've always dreamed of hosting a kitty Woodstock on your property, you might want to opt for some citronella instead.

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