The catnip plant is the subject of many questions I am asked rather frequently in my feline practice. I have found out that most people do not really know what catnip is or how it performs its magical effect on cats. I also get many questions about the safety of giving catnip to a cat.
To lighten things up a bit around here by talking about something other than cat illnesses and also to provide the answers to the questions about catnip that most people ask me, I am adding this section about the infamous plant loved by most cats that come into contact with it.
Here's a short video illustrating the effect that catnip has on cats. Meet Pegasus and watch his encounter with a catnip mouse.
I'll be talking about such things as growing catnip, catnip treats, the catnip plant, catnip oil, catnip seeds, catnip toys, catnip spray, and even catnip tea. We'll also provide some information on specific brands of catnip, such as Cosmic Catnip, catnip from Fat Cat, Kookamunga catnip, and an explanation of the term organic catnip.
Are you trying to decide if catnip (or cat nip as some people spell it) is safe and fun for your kitty? Well, read on and learn if your favorite feline should be a catnip cat!
What is Catnip?
The scientific name for the catnip plant is Nepeta. The name is believed to have come from the town of Nepete in Italy. There are several different species of Nepeta. There is Nepeta Cataria which is common catnip, the type used most frequently with cats and the one they seem to enjoy the most. The name Cataria is assumed to have originated from the Latin word for cat.
Other varieties include Nepeta Camphorata (Camphor Catnip),Nepeta Parnassica (Greek Catnip), Nepeta Cataria Citriodora (Lemon Catnip), and Nepeta Mussinii (Catmint). All in all, there are roughly 250 known species of the Catnip Plant, flowering plants in the Mint family Lamiaceae, as well as many other hybrids. And yes, it's true that it is related to the marijuana plant. Giving your cat marijuana, however, will not produce a pleasurable effect. In fact, it will make your cat sick, so DO NOT give your cat marijuana!
Catnip is also known by many other names, most commonly Catmint, Catnep, and Catrup. Of course, just like any other "drug" out there, slang "street names" exist for the catnip plant too, including Cat's Heal All, Cat's-play, Cat's Wort (Catswort or Catwort), Field Balm, Garden Nep, and Nep. And, of course, there's the foreign language or names with some international flair like Chi Hsueh Tsao, Cataria, Herba Cataria, and Herba Catti.
Whew ... a lot of plants and a lot of names for something that seems so simple to your cat!
Basically, the catnip plant is an herb, known for its effect on cats. It is native to Europe, Asia and Africa, however has become naturalized in America & Canada after being introduced.
How does catnip work? Why do cats like catnip?
The Nepeta plants became known as catnip very simply due to the effect of the plants on cats. The ingredient that causes a reaction in cats is called Nepetalactone. It is an essential oil found in the stems and the leaves of the Nepeta plant.
This chemical is thought to mimic the effects of a cat pheromone and causes a variety of behaviors. When a cat encounters catnip, a chain reaction occurs. For instance, when I watch my cat with his newly refilled catnip mouse, he will sniffs it, lick it, and rub against it repeatedly, until he finally undoes the velcro pouch to eat it. He will zip around the house like a maniac, roll around on top of his toy, or even hold it in his front paws while kicking it with his back paws.
While many cat lovers watch their felines do this, thinking that what your cat is trying to do is eat the catnip, it's actually the sniffing that induces these behavioral changes. The eating of catnip by a cat is thought to be an effort to bruise the catnip leaves & therefore release more of the nepetalactone. Fresh catnip is supposedly more attractive to cats when it is bruised, as in transplanting, rather than growing from seeds. However, I have certainly seen many cats enjoy the leaves from a fresh catnip plant grown from seeds.
A fact that I find incredible is that cats can smell 1 part Nepetalactone to a billion parts air!
Cat Behavior Changes and the Catnip Plant
The inhaled chemical sets off the familiar behavioral changes: sniffing, licking and chewing the plant, pawing at it, rubbing against it, head shaking, rolling over it, jumping around, purring, and sometimes even salivating.
Some cats will growl, hiss, meow, scratch, or bite. In some cases, cat aggression may be seen with a particular catnip toy in multi-cat households. One of my boys, for instance, will hold his cat nip toy in his mouth and meow or growl to announce that it is, in fact, his toy... in case anyone was wondering. This aggressive cat behavior happens more often, though, when dried catnip is eaten. However, sometimes when eaten, the cat will appear to be sedated.
Of interest is the fact that most of the behaviors exhibited by cats exposed to catnip fall into one of three categories: (1) activities related to the sexual response, such as rubbing and rolling (2) playlike behavior, such as leaf chasing, batting and tossing, and (3) hunting or feeding behavior.
The "high" cats experience lasts from five to fifteen minutes. A cat most often will not be able to experience the effects again for an hour or longer.
Although I have not personally witnessed this, it is said that even cats who can't smell can still respond to catnip in one of these ways!
Why do some cats love cat nip while others couldn't care less?
There does not seem to be any one group of cats that is more or less responsive to the catnip plant. Males and females, neutered or not, appear to be equally affected.
However, kittens younger than 8 weeks old aren't able to experience the effects of the catnip plant. In fact, they show an aversion to it. Some senior cats as well may lose their ability to respond to catnip.
Also, approximately 33% of the cat population does not respond to catnip at all, at any age. This is due to genetics -- reactions to catnip are hereditary. Some cats literally have the "catnip gene", a genetic marker that makes him "programmed" to respond to catnip. Others, however, without this "catnip gene" will have no reaction to cat nip whatsoever. Some estimate that number to be closer to 50%.
Is Catnip Safe for Cats?
Catnip will not harm your cat. That is, in moderation! If your cat eats a large quantity of fresh catnip, you may see vomiting or diarrhea. While this is very unusual and is also self-limiting, I would recommend that you withhold or at least limit catnip exposure for that cat. I also personally don't give catnip to my own kitty that has feline cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart).
Usually, cats seem to sense when they have had enough. They are very unlikely to "overdose" on catnip.