Call it weed for cats or ‘feline prozac’, catnip is a non-toxic plant that has a very strong effect on domestic cats. It’s not harmful in any way and can help improve your cat’s quality of life.
Most cats, when introduced to catnip, start nipping at the leaves, hence the name. Do your cat a favour and get catnip, even if it’s just to enjoy seeing your feline friend getting ‘high’. When buying this plant, make sure your nursery sells you Nepeta (or Nepatia) Cataria – a perennial herb native to Eurasia and North America. Although considered by some people to be a weedy pest, it is now cultivated worldwide as an ornamental plant, and is also grown as a medicinal plant and food source.
What does it look like?
Catnip is a grey/green aromatic perennial that grows to 1.5m and bears all the traits of the mint family. The heart-shaped leaves have scalloped edges and grey or whitish hairs on the undersides. The flowers are white with purple spots and grow in spikes. The fresh leaves have a mint-like scent, while the dried leaves smell like lucerne. Catnip is grown in various climates and altitudes; high elevations, however, produce the most potent catnip.
Even scientists don’t fully comprehend why our felines respond to catnip the way they do. When presented with catnip leaves, most domestic cats will start behaving rather oddly. After initial investigation, the full experience will include chin rubbing, sniffing, licking, inhaling and chewing the plant, rhythmic kicking with their back feet, and rolling onto their sides. Once they get some into their systems, cats rub their chins and sometimes their entire bodies into the scattered catnip. This reaction normally lasts between five and 15 minutes. After that, their eyes glaze over and they will lose interest for the next couple of hours when they will be immune to the herb’s effects; but this will soon wear off, and your cat will return to repeat the experience.
The ‘catnip response’ often gives the owner an opportunity to see a cat exhibiting behaviour which is known as the ‘flehmen response’ (when a cat lifts her lips and holds her mouth slightly open – it almost looks as if she is smiling). The cat is actually pressing her tongue against the roof of her mouth, forcing air through the vomeronasal organ. The smell is concentrated and allows the cat to smell-taste the herb, rather than to just smell it.
Does not affect young kittens
Oddly enough, even kittens who are genetically predisposed are normally unaffected by catnip until they are at least six to eight weeks old. Older cats also appear to be less sensitive to the herb. Comprehensive studies of feline response to catnip indicate that the cats’ responses are inherited – they either love it or they ignore it, based on genetic information rather than learned behaviour.
Not only is catnip a great treat for our cats, but the herb also has many other uses – one being that it is gaining recognition for its usefulness in comforting sick cats who have undergone surgery. Anxiety in the recovery room can be lessened by sprinkling fresh catnip on the floor of the veterinary offices two or three times per day. This therapy can be continued when the patient goes home. It can also come in handy if you should move to a new home – an event normally quite stressful for pets.
You are in luck if your cat is a classic ‘catnip tripper’ – a wide variety of catnip products are available today. Catnip mice and other catnip-stuffed toys are the most classic feline favourites. These toys can be a fun and effective part of a programme to keep more sedentary cats active and exercised. Catnip toys do not induce such extravagant behaviour as fresh catnip, but are great for cats, especially those living indoors. However, care should always be taken to avoid toys with bells or other small parts that can be accidentally swallowed or choked on. Another point to remember is when using home-dried catnip, to ensure that there are no hard stems that might hurt your cat.
What you can do with catnip
Catnip also has many other uses – you can stuff some loose catnip into a small sock, tie it lightly and offer it to your cat during playtime (stepping on the sock will help release the herb’s active ingredients), or simply drop a few tablespoons of catnip into a dish. Loose catnip can be rubbed on scratching posts and is particularly effective if your cat tends to scratch in inappropriate places. It should, however, be noted that the herb goes stale after a few months, so you might want to replace any toys or loose herbs after a while.
How to grow catnip at home
Being a perennial, catnip survives the winter coldness and thrives in nutrient-poor, sandy soil. It grows best in direct sunlight in well-drained soil, but can sometimes be grown in a partially shaded area. Once established, it requires very little care and blooms from early spring until mid-autumn. Please note, it will take approximately two weeks (or longer) for the seeds to germinate.
Text: Jeanine Grobbelaar
The full article appears in the August issue of Animaltalk.