Ever find yourself wandering down the Cat Toys aisle and thinking, "What on Earth is 'catnip' and why is it in everything?"
Ever find yourself wandering down the Cat Toys aisle and thinking, "What on Earth is 'catnip' and why is it in everything?" In short, it's a legal recreational drug for cats. It acts like a hallucinogen, but it is safe and non-addictive, and your cat will have a blast!
First things first – what is "catnip"? The herb known as "catnip" is Napeta cataria, and is a member of the mint family. The most common form of catnip grows on stalks with heart-shaped green leaves and purplish-white flowers. It is actually rather closely related to other herbs like spearmint, oregano, and basil.
The herb is native to Europe and Asia but was planted in early colonial medicinal gardens and has since spread to most of the United States and Canada. Catnip is now grown commercially in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and in the Alberta and British Columbia provinces of Canada.
Now for the fun part – why is it in everything cat-related? Go find a cat and give it some fresh catnip and you might see why. A chemical called nepetalactone is held in tiny little pockets called trichomes on the leaves of the plant. When the plant is handled, chewed, crushed, or abused in some way, these trichomes burst and release the nepetalactone. Most plants work the same way – most herbs don't have a smell until the leaves are bruised a bit and poison ivy isn't poisonous until it's touched. Catnip is special because of the reaction most cats have to this chemical nepetalactone. Once a cat catches the scent, they will usually start licking or sniffing or chewing the plant. Then, they start rubbing it over their bodies. Soon they'll be in a head-over-heels frenzying, rolling all over the scent. This reaction might only last a few minutes or the cat might be dazed or relaxed for up to an hour afterwards. After that, the catnip will usually be ignored for a few hours. Ever put on perfume or spray air freshener in a room and not smell it afterwards? It works the same way. Once you (or in this case, the cat) haven't been exposed to the scent for a while, the scent sensors are 're-set' and the smell is new again.
Time for the fine print – not all cats are affected. Up to fifty percent of the feline population might be missing out on the effects of nepetalactone. Researchers believe it is hereditary. A cat has the same chance of being affected by catnip as it does of getting blue eyes or shiny fur; it depends on genetics and the parents. Also, old cats and cats younger than about three months show less of a reaction than middle-aged felines. Otherwise, there hasn't been any significant correlation to the effect of catnip and sex, breed, or color. Another fun fact, this time for the circus and zoo fans out there – even big cats have been known to be affected by catnip! Tigers and lions have shown similar behavior to domestic house cats when given fresh catnip.
Why should you replace your cat toys regularly? Because catnip goes stale so older toys lose their scent and have none of the good smelly stuff left to make your cat interested. Some toys have removable and refillable pouches that you can replace with fresh catnip as needed and will keep your toys fresh. Any extra catnip you have can be stored in the freezer to stay fresh longer.
The freshest way to give catnip is to grow your own fresh catnip. Most pet stores or garden centers will have seeds for you to start growing this herb in a pot or window box. Alternatively, you can grow your own kitty garden.
Catnip is considered a perennial and can be grown easily in most areas. One important thing to remember though is that it was spread across most of this country as a weed. It can easily take over your own garden the same way. You can try burying a container like a five-gallon bucket (or whatever size patch you'd like) into your garden to help stop the catnip from spreading further than you would like.
To help give your kitty his own space in the garden, try other plants your cat might like to nibble. Wheat or oat grass, creeping rosemary, alyssium, and heather are all safe and aromatic plants for your kitty to nibble. Planting these in a special area of your garden or having a small planter of wheat grass indoors (which happens to be sold in convenient little planters) will give your cat a distraction from munching on your houseplants, will keep him out of your garden, and help fight those pesky hairballs.