What is catnip?

What is catnip?

Catnip is not an animal. Catnip is a plant in the mint family. Cats like to like and chew on catnip (Nepeta cataria) and spit it out.

When cats lick and chew on catnip, they help to release iridoid chemicals in the plant. Iridoid chemicals are natural insect repellents. The chemicals repel mosquitoes, flies, cockroaches, roaches, and possibly mites.


In 2021, researchers at the Iwate University in Japan studied cats licking, chewing, and rubbing their bodies on catnip. They found that when cats rub their heads in catnip, they coat themselves in nepetalactol, the iridoid compound that repels insects.

They noted that cats do not eat catnip, and only swallow a very small amount incidentally as they chew it. So, cats are not benefitting internally by the medicinal compound in catnip.

Therefore, the researchers studied the odour of catnip – the odour from the chemicals as the leaves are chewed, crushed, and spat out. Chewed catnip leaves emit 20 times more iridoids into the air than non-chewed catnip leaves. In the study, the odour from the chewed catnip effectively repelled young female Asian Tiger Mosquitoes (Aedes albopictus) when examined in the laboratory. 

The Iwate University researchers, led by Masao Miyazaki, found that chewed catnip odour released into the air provided an effective mosquito repellent for cats – and also for people. 

Research reference: iScienceDOI: 10.1016/j.isci.2022.104455

Location of photographs: Udabno, Georgia

Photographer: Martina Nicolls


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