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Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial mint, native to Eurasia, but widely naturalized in North America, southeastern Australia, and possibly elsewhere. It is often found growing in disturbed areas. The foliage has a minty odor that is often considered mildly unpleasant by humans, but is very attractive to many cats. The flowers are whitish or pale lilac, dotted with pink or purple; the lower lip is slightly toothed.
The physiologically active component of catnip oil is a now well-characterized compound known as nepetalactone. Cats respond to catnip with predictable behaviors, including (1) sniffing, (2) licking and chewing with head shaking, (3) chin and cheek rubbing, and (4) head-over rolling and body rubbing. The complete response rarely exceeds 10 to 15 minutes and is followed by a refractory period of about an hour during which catnip does not elicit a behavioral response. Interestingly, no response to catnip is evident in kittens during the first 6 to 8 weeks after birth, and this response may not develop until 3 months of age. (Tucker and Tucker 1988 and references therein).
Not all domestic cats respond to catnip. Based on a study using a documented pedigree of Siamese cats and a random sample of 84 cats from the Boston area, Todd (1962) concluded that the catnip response is inherited as an autosomal dominant gene. Investigations of a variety of mammals have revealed no catnip response in non-felids tested, but within the Felidae (cat family) many (though apparently not all) wild cat species, both males and females, exhibit a catnip response (for details, see Tucker and Tucker 1988 and references therein).