Why does your furry little friend get so excited about catnip? Catnip actually contains a psychoactive compound that strongly affects cats. Catnip is in the mint family and it’s scientific name is Nepeta cataria, the entire plant is covered in microscopic bulbs that contain the high inducing chemical called, nepetalactone. These tiny bulbs burst very easily, releasing the chemical. Not all cats are affected by nepetalactone, but about 80% are, and it is related to their genes. Nepetalactone binds to the olfactory receptors in the nose, creating a cascade of neurological changes, especially in the hypothalamus, which is a region of the brain linked to emotion. These changes induce euphoria for our feline friends. Cats that do react, almost always react the same way, even large cats like lions and tigers. In humans, psychoactive compounds tend to illicit a wide range of effects.
Humans have also used catnip for centuries, usually as a mild sedative in a tea or juice form. Recently it was discovered that catnip is about as effective as DEET for repelling mosquitoes.