Does your cat go cuckoo for Catnip? If you have you know how much fun it is to watch them rolling and twisting, rubbing, batting, clawing and biting those fuzzy and aromatic leaves. But have you ever wondered why cats react the way they do to the plant? Read on to find out more about your cat’s favorite flora!
About the Plant
Catnip, Nepeta cataria, also known as Catmint, is a member of the mint family, one of about 250 species. It is native to Europe but has naturalized here in the US and in many other places. You can often find it along roadsides and in fields if you know how to recognize it, most of us would see it as nothing more than a roadside weed. The plants grow up to about 40 inches tall, with angular stems, soft, fuzzy, triangular-shaped leaves with scalloped-edges, and clusters of tiny pinkish-purple flower heads through summer. Of course, the easiest way to identify it is that characteristic smell! Your cat reacts to the potent essential oil, nepetalactone that gives catnip its distinctive aroma and has a powerful effect on the behavior of many cats.
It Only Takes a Little Whiff
Researchers aren’t sure why a cat’s brain responds as it does to this herb, but it’s thought that the oils in catnip mimic the feline “happy” pheromones. When they smell that oil it stimulates the receptors in the brain that respond to those pheromones, triggering the behaviors and physical responses you love to watch.
When your cat smells the catnip, the reaction comes almost immediately. For a few intense minutes, your cat will roll, rub and maybe even chew the herb. Some cats get crazy, running, darting and playfully attacking toys and other objects nearby. When chewed or ingested, catnip seems to have a mellowing, relaxing effect causing your cat to doze or zone out for a while. The reaction usually lasts 10 to 15 minutes until the effects of the herb wear off, at which point your cat may walk away as if the experience never happened. It takes a couple of hours for their brains to become susceptible to the intoxicating effects again.
Did you know that not all cats react to catnip? An estimated 40 to 50 percent of cats don’t respond to catnip. Sensitivity to the plant is a genetically inherited trait. Young kittens do not respond, but if your cat has the gene, reactions will begin to show when he or she is 3 to 6 months old. Lions, tigers, and other wild cats may also show reactions to the herb, not just domestic kitties!
You can give your cat a fix by growing or picking your own fresh sprigs of the herb, or of course you can treat them to dried versions or infused toys from your local pet supplier. Catnip does lose its potency the longer it lies around, but you can keep yours fresh by storing it in the freezer in an airtight container or bag.
Catnip as a Behavioral Aid
Catnip can be used to help sway behaviors in cats that respond to it.
Use it to entice your pet to use a scratching post instead of your walls and furniture, or sprinkle a little of the herb on you kitty’s bed to make it more attractive for a cat nap. Don’t worry. Catnip is non-addictive and safe to eat so you don’t have to worry about overdose or rehab.
Other Beneficial Plants to Consider
Does your cat have a thing for chewing on your houseplants? While you’ve probably already assured that the houseplants you keep aren’t toxic to your cat, it is still disheartening to find your decor mangled or spilled on your floor. Growing catnip and other plants specifically for your cat to chew on contributes to better health and to your peace-of-mind that your ornamental foliage may be left alone. If you have a sunny window, try planting a small pot of wheat, oat, rye, or barley grass for your cat’s enjoyment.
Grasses provide several benefits to your cat. They are rich sources of folic acid, an essential vitamin for a cat’s bodily functions that assists in the production of hemoglobin, the protein that moves oxygen in the blood. They can also provide relief from indigestion and act as natural laxatives to prevent issues with hairballs and other digestive issues that can come along with being a carnivorous cat.
Catnip for You
Catnip is not just for cats! It’s been grown and brewed into tea for centuries for its sedative effect on humans with calming properties similar to chamomile. In concentration, nepetalactone from the plant is also an excellent fly, mosquito, roach, and termite repellant, up to 10 times more powerful than DEET, but all natural as opposed to chemical. You can plant catnip directly in your garden as an attractant for butterflies and lacewings as well as you cats. But remember that, like most mints, it’s a vigorous grower and may become invasive in some conditions.
Cat in catnip image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Dwight Sipler