Catnip (also known as catmint, cat’s play, catswort, Chi Hsueh Tsao) is a perennial herb, a member of the mint family, and is best know for its hallucinogenic effects on cats. Catnip is native to Europe, Africa and Asia plus it grows in some parts of Canada and the Midwestern United States. It not only affects the common house cat but also ocelots, lions, bobcats, leopards, pumas and lynx but not tigers. Rats and mice may dislike catnip and avoid the areas where it grows.
How your cats responds to catnip is genetic as some cats (around 30) are not affected by it. The cats that do inherit the “catnip” gene do not seem to develop a reaction until around three months of age. In fact, kittens under 8 weeks of age usually have an aversion to it and will try to avoid it.
The active ingredient, nepetalactone, found in leafs and stems of the plant are what create the amusing behavioral reactions. Sniffing the catnip will create the first reaction. Cats will sniff, lick and chew on the plant, rolling or rubbing against it. They may bite it, paw at it, rub against it, roll and jump over the catnip. Purring, salivating and growling, meowing and even hissing may also be a reaction to the catnip. However, not all cats will re-act the same. Some cats may become aggressive and may fight with other cats in the household.
The effect usually lasts about 10 to 15 minutes at the most. Despite what it appears, catnip is not addicting to cats. There will be no withdrawal symptoms and they cannot overdose on it. Once the cat is done with the catnip, they will simply walk away.
The reason why exposure to catnip causes such an intense happiness is not really known. It is believed that the reaction to smelling the nepetalactone causes the cat to eat or bite the stems and leaves which releases the essential oils. Some experts feel that catnip stimulates a pleasure center that may mimic feline courtship.
Humans have used catnip for medicinal uses: drinking it like tea. It is believed to help settle an upset stomach, treat insomnia and help headaches. Some cultures use it for muscle pain and toothaches while it can also be used as an aromatic herb in cooking and salads.
Good quality catnip is dark green and smells like mint. It can be purchased from many veterinary hospitals and pet stores. It can be used fresh or dried, as an extract, an aerosol spray, as seeds or in dried form. Many cat toys contain catnip. If you are concerned about the effects of catnip on your feline family member, contact your local veterinarian and speak to the Veterinary Assistant with your concerns.