Catnip offers a range of natural health benefits to canines.

When I return home from a trip to the pet supply store, my Jack Russell terrier makes a beeline for the bag, anxious to get his paws on his new catnip toy. Yes, catnip. While Bruno’s love for this feline herb may seem unusual, Nepeta cataria (the Latin name for catnip) actually provides a variety of health benefits for dogs.

Known for its distinctive heart-shaped leaves, delicate pearl-colored flowers – and, of course, its tremendous appeal to felines – catnip actually first gained popularity as a favorite tea leaf in early 16th century Britain. Also used as a home remedy for a variety of human ailments, catnip is a versatile herb that can benefit canine wellness in many different ways.

1. Catnip to help him relax

Does your dog get nervous before a visit to the vet? Does he tense us when the groomer tries to trim his nails? Catnip can be a safe and gentle way to reduce canine anxiety during stressful situations.

While the herb causes a frenzied reaction in many felines, it typically has the opposite effect on dogs. A mild relaxant, it takes the edge off when pooches start to stress out. “It calms them down,” says holistic veterinarian Dr. Randy Kidd. “Some dogs don’t respond, but the ones that do become more relaxed, calmer.”

Most herbs, including catnip, take around 30 minutes to become effective, so administer at least one-half hour before a stressful event.

2. Relieve motion sickness

Speeding down the highway is a strange sensation for many dogs, and can make them disoriented, nauseous or dizzy. Veterinary anti-nausea medications are effective, but they often leave dogs a bit spaced-out.

Catnip can be used as a natural alternative to treat motion sickness, without the nasty side effects. Dr. Kidd reports that a colleague frequently recommends using it for travel. “It’s one of his favorite anti-motion remedies,” he says.

If your dog suffers from motion sickness, try giving him a bit of catnip before your next road trip. “If you’re going to use it for travel, I’d give it at least a half hour beforehand,” Dr. Kidd recommends.

3. Tame tummy troubles

As a member of the mint family, catnip has historically been used as a digestive aid in humans, soothing ailments such as heartburn and flatulence.

It can help relieve an upset stomach in dogs as well. “All of the mints tend to relax the belly,” Dr. Kidd says.

If your dog suffers from occasional bouts of indigestion and gas, a little catnip is worth a try.

4. Keep pests away

“For topical use, the most promising recent studies involving catnip show it makes an effective insect repellent,” says veterinarian Dr. Susan G. Wynn. “You would use the oil as part of a spray to repel mosquitoes.” In fact, researchers at Iowa State University report that “nepetalactone, the essential oil in catnip that gives the plant its characteristic odor, is about ten times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET — the compound used in most commercial insect repellents.” A subsequent study conducted by Rothamsted Research in the UK showed similar results, finding catnip oil to be an effective deterrent against several species of mosquito. Not surprisingly, catnip oil is also effective at repelling fleas.

When using the oil (or any other herbal essential oil) it’s best to consult a professional veterinary herbalist, who can offer advice on how to create and apply a catnip oil spray.

Catnip is much more than a stuffing for kitty toys! This common, easy-to-source herb is also a good addition to your natural health cabinet for you and your dog.