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History of Catnip – Taking a Look at Its Past

Written by: Jessica Kim

Last Updated on February 18, 2024 by Catster Editorial Team

cat eating cat grass

History of Catnip – Taking a Look at Its Past

Many people know about the effects that catnip can have on cats. However, have you ever stopped to wonder how humans stumbled upon the discovery of cats indulging in catnip?

Surprisingly, catnip, or Nepeta cataria, has a long relationship with humans and cats that dates back to the age of ancient civilizations. It’s a member of the mint family and has been used for its medicinal properties and flavor.

It’s unclear as to when catnip was first introduced to cats. However, we can trace several clues that provide a general idea of how the relationship between catnip and cats came to be.

Here’s the story of catnip, which is just as entertaining as watching your cat enjoying the effects of catnip.


Catnip and Ancient Civilizations

Catnip has rather mysterious and unclear origins. Popular belief attributes the discovery and use of this plant to Etruria, which is an ancient country that was situated in west-central Italy in the 7th century BC.

However, with the age-old love that Ancient Egyptians had for cats, there are also theories that it’s the Ancient Egyptians that started cultivating and giving catnip to them.

Regardless, catnip has been around for centuries, and records of its use can be found in Ancient Roman texts. The Ancient Roman city, Nepeta, was particularly renowned for growing catnip and using it in medicine and cooking. Many Ancient Romans grew herb gardens at home, and catnip was often included in them.

With the domestication of cats already being established for centuries, it would be no surprise that Ancient Romans noticed cats interacting with catnip in their home herb gardens.

jar of catnip
Image by: Gaston Cerliani, Shutterstock

Catnip’s Cross-Continental Voyage

In the Middle Ages, catnip was a common herbal medicine and cooking ingredient. The well-established reputation of this herb made it easy to be included on the list of travel items for cross-continental voyages.

Catnip made its way to the Americas sometime in the 18th century. American colonists often used catnip in tea, or they used it topically. In fact, a Massachusetts recipe written in 1712 listed catnip as an ingredient for brewing ale.

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Catnip in Today’s World

In 1941, the scientist SM McElvain and his team of researchers discovered and isolated nepetalactone, the chemical responsible for causing reactions from cats. Understanding the causal factor that triggered reactions from cats helped to improve and innovate the development of catnip products, such as catnip sprays.

Today, it’s difficult to find a pet store or online retailer that doesn’t sell catnip. The success stories of several high-quality catnip manufacturers, such as Cosmic Catnip, also paved the way for producing premium catnip, and the standard for catnip rose significantly.

Dried green catnip for cats spilling from container
Image by: gvictoria, Shutterstock

Catnip for Humans

Catnip is enjoyed and used worldwide by both humans and cats. Although humans don’t experience the same effects as cats, we can still enjoy its health benefits.

Nepetalactone produces a calming effect on people. Many people drink catnip tea to relax. This tea may also help reduce anxiety and restlessness and ease the nerves. It can also help some people have an easier time falling asleep.

Catnip for Cats

While nepetalactone helps people to feel calm, it can cause cats to react in different ways. Some cats may roll around in catnip and become more relaxed or zone out. Other cats can become more active or aggressive. The effects of catnip usually last for about 10 minutes.

Catnip is completely safe for cats. However, if they ingest too much at one time, they can get an upset stomach.

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How to Find a Potent Catnip for Your Cat

Fresh catnip is the most potent form of the plant. Your cat will also be the most attracted to this form because it’s more aromatic than the dried version. Catnip is rather hardy, so it’s relatively easy to grow. If you’re interested in growing your own catnip, visit your local pet store or garden store for seeds or sprouts.

If you don’t have time and would rather purchase dried catnip, make sure to do a little research because not all catnip brands are equal. For the most part, you’ll want to purchase a high-quality premium catnip blend to increase the chances that your cat will enjoy it.

cat with green eyes in catnip
Image by: Georgia Evans, Shutterstock

When it comes to purchasing catnip products, make sure to buy your catnip from a reputable distributor. Look for brands that use organic catnip and harvest the plant during the peak season when it contains the most nepetalactone.

The most potent parts of the catnip plant are the leaves and flowers. So, when you’re shopping for catnip, look for a view of the blend. If you notice a lot of sticks and twigs inside it, it’s most likely not going to be a strong product.

After you’ve purchased dried catnip, make sure to crush the leaves a little bit before giving them to your cat. This will help release the oils and increase the chances of enticing your cat.

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Final Thoughts

Catnip has been a part of human culture for many millennia and found its way to growing deep roots in the pet industry.

Both humans and cats can benefit from this plant. So, the next time you want to create a bonding experience with your cat, make yourself a cup of catnip tea and sprinkle some catnip on your cat’s favorite toy. It’ll be a fun time for you both!

Featured Image Credit: Olga Malinina, Shutterstock

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