Catnip, catmint, catwort, field balm -- it doesn't matter what you call it. Feline species just can't seem to get enough of this fragrant herb.
Originally from Europe and Asia, minty, lemony, potent catnip -- Nepeta cataria -- has long been associated with cats. Even its Latin-derived cataria means "of a cat." And research shows that cats big and small adore this weedy, invasive member of the mint family. But why do they like catnip so much? Is it safe? And what does it mean if your cat doesn't like it?
It's genetics that determines whether your feline friend falls for this cousin to basil and oregano. About one cat in two inherits sensitivity to the herb. But you won't know if your kitten is one of them until sometime between ages 3 and 6 months.
Catnip's allure is in its volatile oil, specifically one chemical in that oil -- nepetalactone. Found in catnip's leaves, stems, and seeds, it only takes one or two sniffs of that wondrous oil before susceptible felines are licking, chewing, and rolling head-over-tail in kitty bliss.
Though intense, that bliss is usually short-lived, lasting about 10 minutes for most cats. For some, the euphoria translates into aggressive playfulness. At the same time, it makes others mellow and calm. But no matter what reaction your cat has, once the pleasure passes it'll be about two hours before kitty responds to catnip again.
Why do cats get attracted to catnip toys ?
Because cats do respond to catnip again and again, the herb can be a powerful training aid. Want to keep kitty from clawing furniture? Rub a scratching post with catnip to make it more appealing. Bought a new cat bed? Sprinkle a little of the herb on kitty's cushion to make it more attractive to your feline friend.
You can also provide enrichment for an indoor kitty by creating catnip toys. Sprinkle a bit of the herb into an old sock, then knot the top. Or put a big pinch of catnip in a small paper bag and crush the bag into a tight ball.
The intensity of kitty's response to toys and training will be affected by the type of catnip you use. While most cats enjoy the herb dried or fresh, they're usually less interested in catnip sprays, which generally don't contain enough nepetalactone to appeal to most felines.
Fortunately for kitty, catnip -- which is non-addictive and safe to eat -- is easy to grow in a sunny window. You can even go so far as to create your own kitty garden with one pot of catnip and one of wheat, oat, rye, or barley grass. Not only will kitty enjoy both, but having its own house plants may keep kitty out of yours. If you plant catnip directly in the garden, remember that, like most mints, it's a vigorous, sometimes invasive, grower.
Catnip's potency doesn't last forever; the essential oils quickly dissipate. So if you buy dried catnip for your feline friend, store what you don't use in the freezer.
How does it help even with Moody cats?
When cats smell catnip they exhibit several behaviors common to queens in season (females in heat): They may rub their heads and body on the herb or jump, roll around, vocalize and salivate. This response lasts for about 10 minutes, after which the cat becomes temporarily immune to catnip's effects for roughly 30 minutes. Response to catnip is hereditary; about 70 to 80 percent of cats exhibit this behavior in the plant's presence. In addition, catnip does not affect kittens until they are about six months old and begin to reach sexual maturity.
So, how does catnip work? Nepetalactone, one of catnip's volatile oils, enters the cat's nasal tissue, where it is believed to bind to protein receptors that stimulate sensory neurons. These cells, in turn, provoke a response in neurons in the olfactory bulb, which project to several brain regions including the amygdala (two neuronal clusters* in the midbrain that mediate emotional responses to stimuli) and the hypothalamus, the brain's "master gland" that plays a role in regulating everything from hunger to emotions.
The amygdala integrates the information flow from the olfactory bulb cells and projects to areas governing behavior responses. The hypothalamus regulates neuroendocrine responses through the pituitary gland, creating a "sexual response." That is, the cat essentially reacts to an artificial cat pheromone.
Human brains are physiologically different from cat brains and people do not react to catnip by getting "high." Native Americans, however, once used catnip for the uncontrollable cries of infant colic. It also serves as a mild sedative in some herbal teas. In alternative medicine circles, catnip is commonly recommended by herbalists to lessen migraine headaches and to relieve cramps, gas, indigestion, insomnia, nervousness and anorexia, or as an herbal paste to reduce swelling associated with arthritis and soft tissue injury.