This behavioural reaction seems to be limited to felines, oddly enough. Many other animals have been tested, from dogs to rabbits, mice, rats and poultry, with no reaction. But lions, tigers, leopards, lynx, pumas, etc., react just like domestic cats. Nor is it exclusive to nepetalactone. There are about fifteen substances that are recognized as having a similar effect on cats. Actinides, for example, produce beta-phenylethyl alcohol, a compound widely used in perfumes, some of which have long been known to attract cats!
Nepetalactone is not a hallucinogen, however; it seems to be simply a stimulant. No dependency or harmful effects have been observed. Some studies have shown that it may be similar to some of the “social” substances secreted by different feline glands.
But catnip doesn’t use up metabolic energy producing nepetalactone simply to keep cats happy. It is merely protecting itself from phytophagic (plant-eating) insects!
Not to worry, humans don’t react to catnip in the same way cats do! Nepeta cataria is used as a mild stimulant and antispasmodic. It is used mainly to bring down a fever, since it causes sweating without raising the body temperature. A catnip infusion makes a good substitute for iced tea as a refreshing drink during heat waves. It is said that before tea was introduced to Europe from the Orient, catnip tea was very popular as a digestion aid. Today, aside from its use in infusions or preserves, catnip is no longer considered a culinary herb. Before refrigerators came along, however, it could be quite useful when meat went off – marinating the meat for several hours in catnip and water apparently eliminated any unpleasant odour.
Based on an article by Édith Morin in Quatre-Temps magazine, Vol. 20, no.2.