Catnip 101: Giving Cats a ‘Chesire Grin’
Ah, catnip. Few things are more fun than watching your cat roll around in a euphoric daze, high on a feline’s marijuana. But what exactly is the herb and why do cats react that way? Is it safe? Do big cats like lions and tigers react to catnip too? (Big Cat Rescue says yes!)
Catnip (Nepata cataria) is a member of the mint family and is distantly related to marijuana. It is not, however, the male cannabis plant as some people believe. Also known as catswort, catmint, catrup and field balm, catnip is a perennial plant native to Europe, but is now common in North American gardens and nurseries. When in full bloom it sports a purple flower that attracts butterflies and keeps away aphids, making it a gardener’s friend.
Nepatalactone is the chemical compound that, when smelled through specialized nasal receptors (, triggers the frenzied feline response. Cats typically roll around and seem excited and euphoric, yet relaxed. They chin-rub like crazy. Cat behaviorist Amy D. Shojai (from ‘Cats 101’ on Animal Planet) says catnip triggers the ‘same biophysical pathways’ as LSD and marijuana does in humans, and calls catnip a ‘feline hallucinogen.’ Some cats eat the plant, which is fine (munchies, maybe?).
Catnip can be used to calm stressed cats (I use it when working with cats who are frightened or cautious with humans to help them relax) or simply offered as a new activity to change things up. It is also used with much success when encouraging cats to scratch on cardboard posts or sisal towers instead of couches or carpets. The initial reaction lasts a short time, typically wearing off in less than ten minutes. After that, a cat will not react again for at least an hour or two. There is a general consensus amongst veterinarians and cat behaviorists that catnip is harmless when used moderately, but long-term overuse may result in decreased awareness or confusion, according to Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook.
Catnip ‘highs’ are not universal; that is, not all cats react to the herb. The sensitivity is hereditary, and anywhere from one-third to one-half of cats will have no reaction whatsoever, and that is perfectly normal. Also, kittens under six months of age rarely react, possibly because they are still reaching sexual maturity, as it is thought that the reaction to the nepatalactone in catnip mimics feline pheromones, such as those spread by males who urine-mark or females in heat. Catnip oil has been used, unfortunately, by bobcat trappers.
You can buy catnip stuffed in toys, in liquid spray form, near-bulk quantity of dried leaves, catnip-flavored treats, seeds for growing your own indoors, or plant some in your garden (it keeps away aphids and attracts butterflies!). Oh, yeah, catnip comes in bubbles too!
Humans don’t typically get any kind of high from catnip, and you shouldn’t give your cat marijuana, either. Don’t be stupid. You can, however, make a catnip tea that is a homeopathic recipe to soothe insomnia and upset stomachs.
About Marissa WeberI graduated with a BA in Communications from Monmouth University, and am thrilled to combine my passions with writing. I have been vegan for over a decade and am a board member of a pet rescue/adoption agency, so my day is filled with animal activism from sunrise to sundown! I wouldn't have it any other way. I also enjoy working on my yoga practice, world travel, and getting tattoos.
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