September 14, 2016

So, What is Catnip, Anyway?

Author: Celeste Glassman


Catnip AKA “Kitty Crack”

Catnip is a plant that is part of the mint family, alternatively called “catmint”.  Nepetalactone (nep·e·ta·lac·tone) is the essential oil in catnip that often brings out the inner goofy in some cats. A whiff of some catnip and kitty may exhibit some of the following behaviors:

  • Sniffing
  • Licking
  • Head shaking
  • Eating the herb
  • Body rolling
  • Head and cheek rubbing

The effects of catnip don’t last very long, only 5-15 minutes on average. This is because the response to catnip occurs through the olfactory system, or sense of smell. According to the website Compound Interest, “Once nepetalactone enters the cat’s nasal tissue it will bind to certain receptors. These can then trigger particular sensory neurons to signal to other neurons, and eventually the brain; in particular, the ‘olfactory bulb’, a region at the front of the brain responsible for processing smells. This region then signals other regions of the brain, including the amygdala, responsible for emotional responses to stimuli, and the hypothalamus, responsible for behavioral responses to stimuli.” After a cat has had their ‘fix’ it’s rare they will continue to respond to the smell of catnip shortly thereafter. However, not all cats react to catnip. Believe it or not, catnip reactivity is hereditary and not all cats carry the gene. Approximately 20-50 percent of cats do not respond to the the smell and kittens fewer than eight weeks old are not affected until after they reach sexual maturity, if they carry the gene.

Although catnip has been nicknamed “kitty crack” it is safe and you don’t have to worry about your kitty getting ‘hooked’. Catnip can help calm an angry cat and bring a shy one out of their shell. Don’t worry if you find your cat eating a small amount of the herb; it may just put them in a relaxed and mellow state. Some kitties will bite the catnip just to release more nepetalactone.

There are a few precautions to think about before letting your feline friend indulge. Occasionally, catnip can over-stimulate a cat to the point where they become territorial for a moment until those feelings subside. It’s best to give your cat some space so you don’t get caught in the middle of “nipper madness”. If giving catnip for the first time, it might be best to avoid adding any additional stimuli so you can monitor their behavior and response. When giving catnip in a multi-cat household separate the cats to monitor their behavior individually. Catnip is a high-value item so be sure to keep it out of reach when your kitty is unsupervised, or you may come home to quite the mess. Check out this video to see “City the Kitty” caught in action.

It’s recommended to only allow catnip once or twice week. The novelty can wear off after a while if it’s given too much. Fresh catnip is the best catnip. Dried catnip loses its potency after a while which is why it’s suggested to buy in small amounts. To keep ultimate freshness, store catnip in a tightly closed container and keep it in the freezer.  Or you can try growing your own catnip; it’s actually quite easy but can quickly take over your garden. Finally, like anything else, read the label! Organic catnip can ensure you’re buying pesticide-free herbs, especially if your kitty likes to “nibble the nip”.

There are many uses for catnip other than the obvious. Nepetalactone may actually be a more effective insect repellent than DEET. Check out this DIY insect repellent from PopSugar that utilizes catnip. A quick google search can lead you to the many other uses for catnip. The list is long enough we may have to write another article about it.

All in all, catnip can be a fun and exciting treat for your cat. Watching your cat engage in play is a surefire way to bring out a smile. Enjoy!

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