Catnip

By Jackson Galaxy

Catnip has a powerful attraction for many cats. They will pounce on it, roll around in it, chew and eat it. Some cats will sit in a big pile of the dried herb and simply drool, eyes glazed over, while others get completely hyper for a while, running laps throughout the house.

Because this perennial herb, Nepeta cataria, is considered harmless even when ingested, it is included in an enormous amount of cat toys these days. Cat towers, scratching posts and other habitats come pre-treated with catnip. And it’s definitely “buyer beware” out there; some toys have catnip in them, but don’t say so on the package. To know, you can give the toy a sniff before your cats get a sniff!. There is even a concentrated catnip spray you can buy to treat areas like scratching posts, to encourage your cats to play with more actively.

Science hasn’t really caught up to the cat yet when it comes to the aphrodisiac effect elicited by exposure to catnip. We know that the active ingredient is nepetalactone, an essential oil, and this ingredient is chemically similar to many hallucinogens. There haven’t been enough studies eating catnip done to conclude whether the response in cats is more sexual or predatory in nature. Studies do indicate that the reaction lasts for 5-15 minutes, and cannot be evoked again for an hour or more after exposure. Not all cats respond to catnip; reactivity to catnip is genetic, and differing studies estimate that between 50-80% of cats respond.

Response also depends on the age of the cat. Reproductive age cats will, most definitely, show a response more so than kittens. In fact, young kittens (under 12 weeks) tend to avoid catnip, and may even seem stressed by it.

This is what we know, scientifically speaking. The following is presented anecdotally, from my experience, that of my clients, and from some of you, our readers:

Catnip can also be an explosive mix in the wrong situation. There are those cats that tend to be the “bully” types in the household, the ones who might be at the center of any problem with the other animals in the house. In my experience, giving catnip to such cats sends them over the top and can instigate a bout of violence. It’s as if their inhibitions, for that brief window of intoxication, have been completely dropped, and they feel like they can get away with anything. And, come to think of it, they are intoxicated! Some cats, in the words of one experienced cat guardian, are “mean drunks.” In cases where I’m mediating a re-introduction between cats and the relationship is very tenuous, I recommend removing all catnip and catnip toys from the house. Even if the toys (beds, posts, etc.) are old and there isn’t much of thcatnip-cate oil left, my feeling is that it’s just not worth the risk. In a few cases, I’ve had clients treating these bullies with a powerful drug like Elavil, Prozac or Buspar to calm them down, and then giving them catnip; that just doesn’t make any sense!

Another finding through experience is that these explosive reactions seem dampened when the  cats are treated to catnip grown from your garden (it’s easy to grow, but as a member of the mint family, has a tendency to expand its territory!); as opposed to the more potent, dried variety sold in stores. Again, this is anecdotal, but I’ve seen the drooling, chin rubbing, falling-asleep-clutching-the-plant response much more often with a stalk of homegrown catnip. The store-bought variety seems to provoke lap-running, and general over-excitement. Recent reports suggest that catnip has a more calming effect when ingested, as opposed to the arousal shown simply by sniffing. Having a stalk to gnaw on naturally encourages chewing.

It all comes down to awareness. You must know your cat, first and foremost. A shy, inhibited cat is likely to have a relatively subdued response, while a domineering cat is more likely to have an aggressive response. A cat prone to petting-induced over-excitement may give your arm the four-paw wraparound, and take a hefty bite out of it for good measure. And these reactions are quicker and less predictable than usual. Again, remember the intoxication parallel we drew earlier. Expect the unexpected until you know exactly how your cat responds, time after time. Lastly, remain cautious when administering catnip. When it is given, and what state your cat(s) are in at the moment, can make a big difference. It’s really not the no-brainer it’s been made out to be, especially in a multi-animal household.

I’m reminded of a client who, wanting to make the trip to the vet’s office smooth for her buddy, put catnip in his carrier. Long story short, the vet wasn’t able to examine the cat that day because he was so fractious. While the short-term effect of this hallucinogen wears off in a relatively short amount of time, in his case, the damage was already done! Do your vet a favor, and save catnip for at-home treats only!

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