What is catnip (and why does my cat love it so much)?

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By Sandie Lee

You’ve heard stories about the effects of catnip — the flipping! the rubbing! the drooling!— so you may not be sure if it’s something you want to give to your cat. Can something that provokes such a strong response be safe (or legal)?

Not to worry – these are all perfectly normal concerns many pet parents have when it comes to this intoxicating kitty herb.  Let’s explore the properties of catnip and how it works so you can decide if it is right for your feline overlord.

Catnip has a scientific name — Nepeta cataria — but it is also called catswort and catmint. It is in the mint family (Lamiaceae) and grows between 20 and 39 inches tall (50 to 100 centimeters) with downy, heart-shaped, jagged leaves and purple-spotted white flowers. It is native to the southern and eastern parts of Europe, the Middle East, central Asia and parts of China.  And even though it’s not indigenous to North America and New Zealand, it was brought over by settlers and now grows and spreads throughout these areas with the ease of a weed.  In addition, many people love to grow this plant in their gardens for its beauty and insect-repellant properties.

What gives it the “nip”?

The zing comes from a chemical called nepetalactone, which is found in the tiny bulbs located on the leaves of the catnip plant, as well as in the stems and seedpods.

To produce the classic ‘nutty’ effect, your kitty will need to actually sniff the catnip. Once inhaled, the nepetalactone stimulates sensory neurons, sending signals to the brain.  

According to Scientific American, several brain regions are affected, including the amygdala (located in your cat’s midbrain & controls emotional responses) and the hypothalamus (the brain’s “master gland” that regulates hormones which affect things like hunger and emotions).  In a nutshell, the nepetalactone inside the cat’s brain mimics a pheromone, which can alter the animal’s behavior.

How will my cat react?

No one really knows how their cat will react to catnip until they try it.  Studies show that 70–80% of felines are genetically predisposed to respond in some way to catnip.

The common effects are usually licking, chewing, rolling, meowing, drooling or running around the house. Others may get aggressive, and do things like swat or growl. 

Dr. Kari Addante at the Village Vets in Decatur, Georgia is particularly interested in feline medicine and behaviors. She provides some great insight on the topic of catnip below:

Catnip is an herb known for its intoxicating effects on cats: it is completely safe medically and non-addictive for your cat to smell and ingest. The ability to respond to catnip is hereditary and about 70% of domestic cats carry this trait (which is autosomal dominant).

The behavior that results varies among individuals so that some cats appear euphoric while others demonstrate aggression.  After 15 minutes or so, the effects diminish and most cats won’t react again for an hour or two.  Elderly cats, kittens, and fearful or stressed cats may not respond to catnip at all.

If you have decided to give catnip a try with your feline, you’ve got a few options:

Purchase toys that are already stuffed with dried catnip. These are readily available at pet retailers and can simply be given to your cat at any time.  

Catnip spray. This is useful for when you are trying to attract your cat to a certain object, like a scratching post, a new pet bed or toy (providing they respond to the herb).

Catnip-infused bubble solution. This is one of the newer and more creative uses of this plant. Catnip bubbles are just like the soap bubbles children blow with bubble wands, but infused with catnip for an extra interactive twist when the bubble pops.

Catnip can be given to your pet fresh from the plant or dried. How much is too much? Cats seem to know when they’ve had enough; it’s unlikely that they’ll overdose by inhalation. However, digestive upset can happen if too much is eaten, so limit Kitty to just a sprinkling (one-quarter-teaspoon or less) on the floor or its favorite kibble. Also note, if you cat eats catnip the behavioral changes are not as marked because it is being digested through the stomach.

Although catnip has no long-term addictive properties, like any other product use this herb in small doses to ensure you can gauge its effect. Ultimately, to catnip or not to catnip is up to each individual pet parent. Unless your feline has had it before, the effects of the herb may just surprise you—so be ready!

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sandie-lee-writerSandie Lee has been in the writing industry for over 20 years. She hails from a small city in Ontario, Canada where there are two seasons; winter and not winter! Her husband and two furbabies, Milo and Harry, make sure she is diligently writing each day.

 

 

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