Health Topics

Crazy For Catnip

(This article was originally published in the Fall 2008 Issue of Cat Basics and is reproduced here with the permission of the publisher.)

A treat that creates feline frenzy.

It is thought that the cat-worshipping ancient Egyptians were the first to treat their feline friends with catnip. The plant, which produces loonie-sized saw-toothed leaves, gives off an essential oil when crushed or bruised. That oil contains Nepatalactone, a chemical that safely sends about two-thirds of all cats into a temporary, euphoric high.

Cats love to sniff herb-infused toys or rub up against catnip shrubs, biting and licking the leaves and stems to release the plant's essential oils. The effect is nearly immediate - your cat will probably purr, growl or meow loudly, drool, and roll around or leap into the air in a euphoric state. Sniffing catnip produces a frisky cat, but the herb has a sedative effect on cats who ingest it.

The herb is a distant bio-chemical cousin of marijuana, so researchers believe that catnip produces a pleasure response in cats similar to that experienced by humans.

Sensitivity is an inherited trait - a cat with one herb-sensitive parent has a 50 percent chance of inheriting a nose for catnip; two sensitive parents ups the ante to 75 percent. Sex, breed or colour seems to make no difference, however older cats and kittens under three months are often immune.

Toys, tools and treats

Many pet owners pull out catnip toys as a special treat for their pets. However, a catnip toy can be a great tool, too. Catnip toys can encourage a sedentary kitty to get off the couch and play. The herb can also be useful to train your cat to use a new scratching post. Or, use catnip as a special treat after a stressful experience, like a trip to the vet.

Catnip isn't thought to be addictive - in fact, the herb seems to lose effect after about 15 minutes, and it takes about two hours before cats will respond to it again. There are not any known side effects, although some pet owners report that their cats become aggressive while under the influence. If you find your cat bites, gives up eating, or is otherwise hard to handle, try limiting exposure or leaving it alone altogether.

What to buy

  • When it comes to catnip, fresh is best as the plant's oils degrade over time. Your local pet store or online retailer will carry a range of products, like catnip-stuffed toys, catnip-scented bubbles, and essential oil spritzes to refresh old toys.
  • Look for stem-free treats - stems are filler material and can deliver a painful poke.
  • For a low-tech treat, tuck some loose catnip into a sock, knot securely and let your kitty go wild. The scent does wear out, so make sure to replace old toys with new ones, or re-stuff with loose herbs, when your cat starts to lose interest.

Keep your catnip stash somewhere inaccessible to your cats. Determined kitties will wreak havoc to get into catnip, so transfer loose herbs into an airtight container. If you use loose dried herbs, make sure to handle them gently so you don't release all of the oils.

Steps to grow your own catnip.

  1. For the ultimate kitty trip, you want the freshest catnip and that means growing your own (it's more economical, too).
  2. At your local nursery, look for plants or seeds labeled Nepata catari. True catnip is a hardy perennial shrub that grows two to three feet high. Nepeta mussinii, better known as catmint, forms soft mounds. Decide which one fits in your garden and go from there. One or two plants will provide a year's supply of catnip.
  3. Find a sunny spot with dry, well-drained soil and plant about 12- inches apart. Leave lots of space as the plant tends to spread, and protect young plants from enthusiastic cats until they are well established. Catnip can be invasive, so cut it back before flowers go to seed.
  4. Harvest leaves and flowering tops before they go to seed. You can give fresh leaves to your cat, but dry your home-grown catnip for a year-round supply.
  5. Cut stems, tie in bunches and hang upside-down in a dry place, or place in a 100F oven for 6-8 hours.
  6. Once dry, pick off leaves and blossoms, being careful not to crush them, and discard the less-potent stems.
  7. Store in a tightly sealed container for up to one year.