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Crazy for Catnip and Catmint

By: Moira Allen

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Does your cat go crazy for catnip? There's no mistaking the signs. She dances and wriggles around the room and begs shamelessly as you pull the bag out of the drawer. Then there's the protective hunch as she guards her stash from potentially pilfering felines. That's followed by the pawing, licking, rolling, writhing, frolicking and just plain nutso behavior that normally seems just too undignified for a cat. And lastly, there's the drugged-out (and harmless) afterglow.

If this sounds like your cat, she's not alone: As many as 70 to 90 percent of domestic cats exhibit at least some reaction to herbal catnip (Nepetia cataria), which is a downy-leaved relative of the mint family. And even the housecat's bigger cousins, such as lions, pumas and leopards, get turned on by the stuff. Only tigers and bobcats seem to be immune. Some cats are "total responders" and go whacky when they smell it - licking up the catnip, rolling around and meowing. Other cats are only partial responders. They just don't get the same buzz from it. And a few hardy souls show no interest at all.

A typical cat reaction to catnip after approaching the plant or dried leaves is to smell, lick or ingest some of the plant. Many cats will begin salivating, rubbing their heads on the catnip while holding it in the front paws. The skin over the neck may twitch and the cat may begin rolling in the catnip, leaping and jumping. A general response to catnip lasts 5 to 15 minutes. After about 1 hour, cats generally tire of the catnip and leave.

Bringing the Kitten Out in Your Cat

Scientists are not quite sure what causes the "catnip reaction." Catnip's primary active ingredient, nepetalactone, is chemically similar to hallucinogens. However, contrary to popular belief, it causes no harm or addiction to cats. Some speculate that it triggers a sexual response, while others believe the behavior more closely matches a cat's predatory reactions. Whatever the cause, the "catnip response" tends to last from 5 to 15 minutes. After the session is over, most cats won't respond to catnip again for at least another hour. Reproductive age cats tend to respond more than older or younger cats, and young kittens may actually avoid the plant. Response usually does not occur in kittens under 8 weeks of age and cats that are fearful or stressed.

The herb is harmless when ingested, and catnip has become a common ingredient in cat toys. It's often incorporated into scratching posts and other products, and is even made into a spray. Test drive different toys on your cats to see which they prefer - some, for example, return repeatedly to Cosmic Catnip sacks and "duffel bags," while ignoring other catnip-scented toys. But nothing beats the real thing: a pinch of catnip sprinkled on the floor or carpet can mean a session of rolling, clawing and general craziness.

Be aware, though, that too much exposure to catnip can cause cats to lose interest in it. For maximum effect, dole it out sparingly and don't surround your cat with catnip toys.

What to Look For

The entire catnip plant - leaves, stems, blossoms and all - is used in commercial catnip and catnip products. When buying loose catnip, look for a product that has more leaves and blossoms than stems because these have the highest concentrations of nepetalactone. Look for catnip that retains some greenish color. Take a sniff. If you can't detect any herbal odor, then it may be old and have lost some of its savor.

Growing Your Own Stash

Catnip seeds can be "started" like any other herb, and many nurseries carry young catnip plants. This "hardy herbacious perennial" has leaves that range from bright green to grayish-green, with a soft white fuzz on top and stiffer white hairs beneath. The flower is white with purplish spots. Catnip should be planted in full sunlight or partial shade and in well-drained soil. Mature plants can grow to between 12 and 36 inches - in gardens that aren't accessible to cats, of course. Harvest the young leaves and flowering tops when the flowers are fully open, and hang them somewhere out of Kitty's reach to dry. Then grind it up and seal it in a plastic bag to store it for later use.

The Roots of Nip

Cats aren't the only ones to succumb to the allure of catnip. The plant has been cultivated throughout Europe and Asia for centuries and was brought to America by colonists. It was first reported in the colonies as a commercial crop in 1796. Its leaves are used as teas and to scent potpourris, tenderize meat and make light yellow dye. As a domestic folk remedy, catnip has been used as an antispasmodic, stimulant and sedative. It's also been used in the treatment of colds, colic, diarrhea and cancer. Most recently, scientists have begun to explore its benefits as an insect repellant because the same properties that attract cats repel roaches. So next time you get a twinge of guilt for getting your kitty "high," remember that you're observing a tradition that goes back for centuries.

For more information on growing catnip and various uses of the herb, see:
  • www.hortweb.cas.psu.edu/vegcrops/herbs/Nepetacataria.html
  • www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/med-aro/factsheets/CATNIP.html
  • www.mhhe.com/biosci/pae/botany/botany_map/articles/article_14.h
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