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Cats and catnip: What you should know

Sunday July 31st, 2011

If you’ve ever seen your furry friend playing with it, you already know that catnip isn’t just a clever name.

The plant’s effects on cats have been known for centuries, evidenced by its scientific name, Nepeta cataria — the Latin “catari” means “of a cat.” But there’s plenty to this feel-good herb that you might not know.

What the heck is my cat doing?

Catnip and its relatives contain a chemical called nepetalactone that binds to the olfactory receptors of cats to produce its effects — basically, cats smell or eat it and are put under its spell.

The effects of that spell differ almost on a cat-by-cat basis. Some might drool and get sleepy, some might purr and roll around a lot, some might get hyper and meow like crazy, and some have even been known to become aggressive and hiss (though that’s fairly rare). Theories abound as to what exactly your kitty is experiencing; scientists have posited that it’s a feline aphrodisiac, while others think it creates a high similar to the effects of marijuana in humans.

The only agreement on the topic seems to be that only about two-thirds of cats are susceptible to its effects. Kittens often don’t respond to it at all, but might change their tune after about six months. Some say you might even find a tiger or lion partaking as well!

Is it dangerous?

Nope, at least not in reasonable doses. It might make your kitty vomit if he eats a lot of it, but in general, cats know when to say when and will refuse it once they’ve had enough. It’s possible that your cat can develop an immunity of sorts, so periodic use (like as a treat) might be advised to avoid overexposure and keep him happy.

Catnip even has a history of medicinal use for humans thanks to its soothing properties. It’s most commonly brewed in teas as a treatment for headaches and upset stomach. Nepetalactone also works as a mosquito and fly repellent, and might also drive off cockroaches. Rats and mice also tend to avoid catnip, so maybe your cat’s doing you a favor by leaving his toys everywhere.

Can I grow my own?

Sure! You can plant seeds and make starters indoors in late fall or early spring, though sometimes you can find small starter plants at your local nursery. They like well-drained, sandy soil, and prefer full sun, but still grow in the shade. Space plants about 15-18 inches apart, keep ’em watered, and soon you’ll find a 3-4 foot tall plant with small lavender flowers.

You can harvest the leaves all through summer (your cats will probably eat it right out in the yard unless you keep them away from it). Store catnip in an air-tight container in your refrigerator or freezer. Dry the leaves, then follow APSCA’s easy directions to make a catnip toy for your kitty. Make two and donate one for a shelter cat!

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