Catnip: if you’re a cat person, there’s no way you haven’t heard of it. Chances are, you’ve been confounded by a truly overwhelming number of catnip products at the pet store: balls of compressed catnip, catnip paper, catnip bubbles even. Chances are you’ve also been tickled to laughter watching cats get their catnip on: let me tell you, I have. Tiger Jack, my giant orange tabby, is a paragon of cat dignity — at least until the catnip hits the floor. Then he’s a bright-eyed trilling floof-ball of acrobatic zaniness, throwing himself into daring floor-rolls and zipping about until I have cried with hilarity.
But what is catnip precisely? And just what is going on here?
CATNIP: NEPETA CATARIA
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Catnip is a medium-sized plant related to other mint plants, like spearmint, along with basil and oregano. The square stems and serrated leaves of the catnip plant store essential oils; catnip can flower, and sports white blossoms with possible spots of purple or pink when it does. The plant is native to parts of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, but has also spread to New Zealand and North America thanks to people immigrating plants as well as themselves.
You can begin growing catnip in the spring, and the plant does equally well in flowerbeds or containers. The plant needs a lot of light so, while you can grow it indoors, you’ll want to rotate it between inside and outside periodically. Catnip is a natural mosquito repellent as well, so having it in your garden is for more than just giving your cats a playful thrill. Catnip can even be used as an herbal treatment for humans – there is no high involved, as our brains are quite different from our cats’, but it can provide a mild sedative effect or help indigestion.
HOW DOES CATNIP WORK ON CATS?
Image: kateieb50 via flickr
Remember how the stem and leaves of the catnip are full of essential oils? Well, those oils are released when the plant is crushed or the leaves even just bruised by curious cats – and one of those oils is called nepetalactone. (Practice saying that out loud: it’s fun!) Scientists are not 100% on the specifics of the chemical reaction involved, but here are the broad steps: your cat inhales nepetalactone, which binds to certain receptors in your cat’s olfactory tissue. This triggers certain neurons to signal more neurons, in a chain of dominos leading right into your kitty’s brain. Once there, two centers of the brain end up responding to this stimuli: the amygdala (Captain Emotion) and the hypothalamus (Commander Behavior).
And what do Captain Emotion and Commander Behavior do then? ZING ZING ZING! They hit the buttons for your cat to get a little strange: sniffing the catnip aggressively, maybe licking the herb. (Which is totally fine and won’t hurt your cat.) They may shake their heads, and rub their chins and cheeks against whatever you’ve spread the catnip on. Cats might get into rolling over on their heads, or full-body rubbing, or even leaping about. Catnip actively affects cats for only about 10 minutes, after which they’re immune to it for anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour. Also, catnip doesn’t work on all cats: there’s around 30% of cats who don’t inherit the “catnip is party time!” gene. Poor furry, genetic teetotalers. Cats may lose their ability to respond to catnip if exposed to it too frequently, so keep it as an occasional treat.
CATS GONE WILD
Time for a laugh break! Here’s a little visual feast of cats on catnip:
Yes, catnip works on big cats too! Lions and tigers and panthers, oh my!
WHAT’S CATNIP GOOD FOR?
Image: nicanicasather via flickr
The simplest argument for catnip is that your cats enjoy it. There is no harm to your cat in experiencing a catnip high, and the energetic goofiness it inspires can be a pleasant diversion for your feline friends. Combine the catnip with toys, and you’re giving your kitty another active outlet and especially enriching indoor-only kitties’ lives. As lazy as my silver tabby Daenerys can be, we like to give her catnip to jumpstart playtime when her cousin Nyx isn’t around to keep her scampering around corners and strafing down the hallways in kitty wargames.
Catnip can also be used as a behavioral modification tool. First, it’s important to make sure your cat doesn’t get too aggressive on catnip. Once you’re sure the cats involved respond well to catnip – full of playful silliness, not aggression – you can use the herb to train cats in better behavior. Integrating a new cat into your household? Giving the cats catnip together can help break their social tension. You can also use catnip to redirect destructive behavior – for example, rub it on your cats’ scratching posts to attract them and keep them from no-scratching zones.
GREAT CATNIP BUYS
Catnip paper – Most of these products are pads of paper that you scratch or crumple to activate the catnip, then throw to your feline buddies. Better yet, some come in “cave” form – basically just a catnip-infused paper bag that your cats can crawl into and claw at like any other paper bag.
Catnip-filled toys – These are everywhere, and you can even “make” your own by putting any toy in a ziploc bag filled with catnip and marinating it for a while. Tiger Jack’s favorite is the Kong Kickeroo, which he can wrestle and kick with his hind legs in his hyper catnip state.
Catnip spray – This one’s great for behavioral modification practices. You can spray it on scratching posts or kitty condos to attract your cat to those areas. Kong Naturals Catnip spray has good reviews.
If you’d like more in-depth analysis of catnip’s chemical effects, or information on growing your own catnip and purchasing catnip, we recommend the following links:
The Chemistry of Catnip has a great infographic and thorough explanation with more links.
Growing Catnip by Bonnie Plants gives some great tips.
The Catnip Response over at Cat Behavior Associates gives another good overview.
Right, Daenerys has now reached the sleepy stage after catnip fun times, which means she’s climbing into my lap and doesn’t think I need my hands for typing. Until next time!