Crazy for Catnip

Here's our question today, and it's another good one:

Dear Cat,

What is it about catnip that's makes my big fat beautiful Sadie purr and act like a silly kitten? It's hilarious, and sometimes a little scary when she really gets going.  She doesn't seem to eat it, she just sort of sniffs and "paws it."   What's the scoop with this stuff?  Is it safe?  Can she have too much of it?  Is it like alcohol for people and you shouldn't have too much?  And finally, should I grow it for her so she can enjoy it fresh?

signed:   Crazy in Texas for Catnip

Whoa, cowboy, you gotta lotta questions there!  Be assured, Sadie hasn't discovered anything new or unsafe.  With a lot of help from the website (reference the page, Cats have been getting high on catnip for over 3,500 years.  Ancient Egyptians watched with delight as the felines they worshipped abandoned all dignity to roll about in the magic herb.  And us modern felines enjoy over 3,000 tons of catnip a, that's a whole lotta cat fun.

Of course, not every cat is susceptible to the pleasant effects of catnip:  about 20 percent of cats don't have the "genes" to respond.  Experts say that catnip reactions are inherited and if a cat loves her 'nip, it's likely that mom or dad enjoyed it as well.  In general, catnip is an aphrodisiac and it seems to affect males more than females.  Kittens younger than six months old who haven't developed (sexually) don't usually find catnip appealing.

wild cat If you think watching your housecat enjoy the effects of catnip is amusing, imagine watching a 500 lb. lion roll around like a kitten!  Most big cats -- including lions and leopards -- react to catnip with the same antics as the housecat.  (Tigers, however, seem to be immune to catnip and we don't know why.)

The catnip "high," if you want to call it that, is triggered by the plant's release (in oil form) of a chemical called "nepetalactone."  Yeah, that's a mouthful.  Anyway, it's one of nature's chemicals and similar to the sleepy-feeling ingredient in the well known herb called "valerian."  Humans, of course, don't generally turn cartwheels in the air or bounce around on the furniture after taking valerian: they skip straight to the gentle sleep portion of the effect, a level that cats get to eventually too.  

Neither catnip or valerian, both natural herbs, are dangerous to cats or humans, but as with most things, too much of it can cause a very bad stomach ache.  Also, if catnip is too readily available, your cat will start to become "immune" to its effects, and is liable to get bored and lose interest in it.  Save the 'nip for special occasions or for no more than once a week.

Buying or Growing Catnip

Catnip toys and loose catnip are both available, but catnip toys are often the best choice because the catnip is contained and you won't end up with loose leaves all over your house.  Remember, it's the scent of the catnip and not the taste that creates the pleasant effect, so your cat won't be deprived if you choose toys over loose catnip.

Here's a great 'Nip Tip:  The best way to keep your cat interested in his or her catnip toys is to store them in the freezer ...that keeps them fresher and keeps your cat from finding them.

And if you have more than one cat, make sure that you have enough catnip toys to go around; cats tend to be very possessive of their 'nip and will try to hide their catnip toys.  Cats can also get aggressive when given catnip, and you don't want your catnip party to turn into a cat fight!

If you are looking for loose catnip you can either purchase it....or grow your own!  Catnip is a perennial herb with white or pale lavender flowers that can grow up to five feet tall; it prefers full sun and well-drained soil.  You can harvest and dry the catnip leaves as needed.  Dry or fresh has the same effect.  Added bonus..catnip contains citronella and can act as a natural insect repellant.  The only caution about growing catnip is that once the leaves are bruised or crushed and release their scent, cats will come running to play in your catnip garden!

Why Not Share a Nip with Your Cat?

While your cats are enjoying chasing their catnip toys, why don't you pull out the teapot and brew up a pot of catnip tea?  Although catnip doesn't give humans the same euphoria as it does cats, it has been used for centuries to ease stomachaches, headaches, relieve colds, fevers, soothe colicky children and ease cramps. A cup of catnip tea can also soothe anxiety, provide a restful night's sleep and help hyper kids settle down. Some companies sell catnip tea, but to create your own, simply cut up leaves and brew them as you would other types of loose tea. Catnip can also add an unusual flavor to sauces, soups and stews.  One of these days, I must do a "Cat Knows Catnip Cooking!"

All Catnip Is Not Created Equal

Another factor that can affect your cat's reaction to catnip is the herb's age.  Although it doesn't take much catnip for cats to go bonkers -- they respond to catnip in concentrations approaching 1 part per billion -- it's important to remember that catnip loses its potency over time, say 6 months or so.

Catnip's potency, like that of other herbs, is affected by a number of factors, including soil and climate.  If your cat isn't responding to the catnip in her toy, try buying a new catnip toy and see if there's a different reaction.

Storing catnip in the freezer can prolong its life and keep it safely out of your cat's reach for those special occasions when you and your cat can both enjoy it.

And that only leaves one question . . . what do cats dream about when they're enjoying catnip?   Ha, that's easy....a world where birds fly low, mice run slow, fish is served daily, and people have pockets full of catnip!

Join us again for another installment of "Cat Knows Cat Care."   Because understanding your cat makes you a better CatFriend...and being a better CatFriend makes it a better world for all of us!

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