Your cat probably knows it as Catnip or Catmint. But the stuff that drives your kitten crazy goes by the Latin name Nepeta cataria, and it's a member of the genus Nepeta (derived from Nepete, the Italian town where catnip was first cultivated).
When a cat smells catnip it usually licks, chews, rubs against and rolls around on the plant, as well as salivates and meows. This reaction lasts for about 5 to 15 minutes, and then the cat loses interest and needs about two hours of "reset" time before it can have the same response. Amazingly, catnip doesn't hold power over all felines. Response to catnip is genetically inherited, with about 70 to 80 percent of cats exhibiting the typical response to the plant. Of those, kittens younger than six months and very old cats are less likely to respond.
But why does the plant hold such power over your cat? The secret to catnip is nepetalactone, a volatile oil stored in tiny bulbs on the leaves, stems and seedpods of the plant. When nepetalactone enters a cat's nasal tissue, it binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium. Sensory neurons are stimulated and cause neurons in the olfactory bulb to send signals to the brain. Once the brain gets involved, things get a bit murky because we still don't have a complete neurological explanation for cats' behavioral reaction, but the prevailing theory is that nepetalactone mimics a cat pheromone.
Besides amusing our pets, is there any use for catnip?
Research from the early 1960s suggested that a mouthful of nepetalactone for insects that bit into the plant kept them away. Later experiments found that catnip oil had the same repellent effect as 10 times the amount of DEET, sparking the emergence of several "natural" insect repellants using nepetalactone.
Catnip also has a mild calming effect on people, and folk medicine prescribes it as a treatment for migraines, indigestion, insomnia, colic and toothaches.