What is catnip and why do cats go a bit nuts when it is in their midst? Read on for some interesting facts about this ancient and most mysterious plant.

What are the origins of catnip?

The ancient Etruscans (central and northern Italy’s inhabitants before the Roman era) were the first to recognize the alluring and strange powers of a weed, Nepeta Cataria, named after the Etruscan city of Neptic where it was discovered. During its early history, catnip was quite versatile. It was used medicinally as an ointment for piles, scabs and other skin ailments, consumed as a tea to treat colds and fevers and smoked for its powers to transport users to distant magical places only accessible via mental carpet rides.

What does catnip look like and where does it grow?

Catnip is a perennial weed native to southern and eastern Europe, the Middle East, central Asia and parts of China. It resembles other plants from the mint family, possessing the same triangular stems, which grow from 18 to 36 inches tall and coarse-toothed triangular leaves. Blooming from late spring to autumn, the plant displays usually white flowers that are showy and fragrant and often spotted with pink or pale purple.

Why are cats so susceptible to the powers of catnip?

Catnip is attractive to both domestic and feral cats and affects their behavior for a short period of time (about twenty minutes) because its strong scent is very similar to sex pheromones exuded by cats. Catnip is sometimes referred to as cat mint because the scent is similar to that of mint.

The scent of catnip appeals to the inquisitive nature of cats despite that old adage about curiosity and what it did for an unfortunate feline. Some of the most common indicators that your cat has fallen under its spell are: Rubbing on the plant or toy infused with catnip, rolling on the ground, pawing at it, licking and even chewing it. If too much catnip is consumed, symptoms include: Drooling, sleepiness, anxiety and excessive purring.

Other unexpected uses of catnip

Catnip  stands above others of its ilk because of its most important function in nature. It is used as a bee-foraging plant and is the reason why so many open spaces are often planted with catnip. In addition to its leaves at one time being used as a condiment in mild European sauces, catnip oil is also a natural repellent against mosquitoes, cockroaches, termites and fleas.

Final thoughts on catnip

Cat’s shared affinity to catnip seems to be nature’s way of soothing the savage beast that’s right up there with music and other vagaries. Indulgences can be harmful or harmless, depending on how they are used.

There is no Catnip Anonymous or other such collective to help cats that are powerless over the influence of this intoxicating weed, but it’s nothing to worry about. The ancients had fun with it and so should you…and your cats.


Does your cat respond to catnip? Did you know that behavior regarding catnip is hereditary?

Additional Images: Pet Bucket



M. Dee Dubroff
M. Dee Dubroff
My name is Marjorie Dorfman and I am also known as M Dee Dubroff. I am a freelance writer and former teacher originally from Brooklyn, New York. A graduate of New York University, I taught in New York City schools for a few years before finding my true calling as a writer. I now live in Doylestown, PA with one cat named Mr. Biscuit and my significant other, a graphics artist and former designer of postage stamps, both of whom keep me on my toes at all times.