Have you ever partaken in watching a cat flip out over catnip? Did you laugh at his antics as he became more playful than a kitten, rolling on the floor and leaping through the air in turns?
You may have wondered if the cat felt like he had drunk a glass of wine or smoked a joint. But perhaps at the end, as the cat lay drooling, you wondered if catnip was appropriate for him.
Is catnip good for cats?
It certainly has minimal harmful effects. Cats do not overindulge like humans are prone to. With repeated exposure day after day, your cat may become bored by the entire process. And the rare cat does not appear to be having much fun. However, for the most part, catnip is an amusing herb for both cats and the people who love them. Moreover, the essential oil in catnip can have beneficial training and therapeutic effects.
We cover the background of catnip and why it has the effect it does on most cats. You will also see how moderate amounts of catnip are not harmful and how the herb can enhance behavioral modification and some medical treatments.
Catnip is an herb
You undoubtedly already know that catnip is a plant. Would it surprise you to learn that it is an herb and, specifically, in the mint family?
It may seem otherworldly to think of catnip as a plant. Nevertheless, it is a hardy perennial that can grow to a height of three or four feet tall.
Flowers blossom from later in the spring until almost the start of winter. The plant’s blooms, when they do appear, usually last a month. They have multiple lobes and are white with splotches of lavender. Blossoms collect in clusters on thin structures that resemble spikes.
Catnip has square stems like mint and ovoid or triangular leaves with saw-toothed edges. The leaves are rather large at three inches long, and each has its own one-inch stalks or petioles. Leaves are green or gray-green with prominent veins.
Catnip has a pungent odor that seems to attract cats but is off-putting to many people. Some even say the scent resembles that of a skunk.
While a few may consider the catnip attractive enough, many gardeners see it as little more than a weed. It can spread if left unchecked, but you can make it compact by pinching it back.
If you decide to cultivate catnip yourself, many people surround it with other mint varieties. This creates a space that is inviting to your cat, but your pet will not end up destroying all the beautiful foliage in your garden.
What is the active ingredient in catnip?
Catnip’s scientific name is Nepeta cataria and the active ingredient that causes a drug-induced state in cats is nepetalactone. Nepetalactone is a type of terpene, a substance that plants emit that gives them a particular odor and deters predatory insects.
The catnip plant manufactures the essential oil in glands under its leaves on its stems, and in its flowers and seeds. It is similar to the terpenes you would find in Marijuana plants. Commercial distributors of catnip usually sell it as live plants in little pots, oil extract dispensers, or dried leaves.
Catnip has several historical uses
Catnip is a native of Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and China. Botanists described it as early as the 1700s, although it was in recipes of the ancient Egyptians and Romans.
Egyptians may have even snuck a few leaves to their cats.
Nevertheless, the therapeutic effects extend to humans. Americans saw their first catnip in the early 1700s when settlers shared its medicinal benefits and used it to flavor their food.
Seemingly most effective ingested or consumed in teas, catnip has a mildly sedative effect. It lowers inhibitions, helps insomnia, eliminates scabies, relieves headaches, and improves menstrual mood swings.
The benefits catnip has for gardeners are repelling insects like aphids and deterring deer. The rest of their plants can be saved by the less ornamental catnip. Catnip also repels mosquitos, beneficial even for people who do not garden.
How does catnip affect cats?
Since the vomeronasal organ causes such a dramatic effect as it helps cats interpret pheromones, scientists thought it must also be involved in the feline reaction to catnip. Experiments later confirmed the nepetalactone affects the brain via nasal receptors.
The hypothalamus and amygdala are just a couple of the major areas of the brain stimulated by neural sensors leading from the nose. Both closely tie in with a cat’s emotional state involving both anger and pleasure centers.
The hypothalamus also controls the female reproductive cycle, appetite, and hormones that regulate steroids and arousal.
Therefore, when you expose your cat to catnip, she will have a stereotypical reaction of rolling, rubbing, purring, and frolicking. She may also vocalize more than usual.
Cats appear in a euphoric state for fifteen minutes followed by half an hour of stupor. Like pharmaceuticals, some cats have a paradoxical reaction to catnip. These cats will become dysphoric and lash out aggressively.
Still another effect occurs when cats eat catnip as opposed to just inhaling it. When a cat ingests catnip, he tends to go straight to the mellow state.
Catnip only affects 50 to 75% of cats. Cats have various responses, but they either react obviously or not at all.
Reacting to catnip is carried on a dominant gene. Therefore, a cat only needs to have one “catnip gene” to express changed behavior with the herb. As a quick summary, cats have two genes for each trait.
Like coat color, one gene is dominant and carries the expression of that trait. If two recessive genes are present, the dominant trait will not show up at all.
Catnip does not affect cats until they reach three to six months of age.
Are there any side effects of catnip?
An overindulgence of catnip can cause headaches, nausea, and digestive disturbances in people.
For the most part, catnip does not have any adverse effects on cats. However, cats can experience catnip toxicity. If they get too much of the active ingredient in catnip, a few cats become overstimulated to the point they can cause trauma to themselves.
Cats also tend to develop hypersalivation when they chew on the fresh plant instead of just rubbing against it.
Moreover, one of the effects of catnip on felines is to mimic a sexual response. Some owners do not like the manifestations of these behaviors and should avoid giving their pets the herb.
Felines can become sick if they ingest too much catnip, developing vomiting and diarrhea that resolves on its own. Fortunately, your cat is quite unlikely to overindulge herself on catnip.
Cats do not appear to develop an immunity to catnip but may lose interest during a “cooling down” period of about two hours from the last exposure. Many cats also become bored with subsequent exposures, even within four or five days.
Regardless of your cat’s interest level, the recommendation is to give catnip sparingly. Some sources, like the Animal Emergency Center of Minnesota, say spread it over three weeks while others simply advise against giving it more than twice a day.
Another controversy surrounds the question of whether a cat develops a tolerance against catnip. However, it seems unlikely that cats develop a tolerance as a “catnip high” is not related to the “mellow trip” that people experience with such substances as marijuana.
Is catnip good for cats?
Although many professionals and owners alike think of catnip as an herb that mimics feline sexual behaviors, in truth it is more complex than that.
Behaviors encompass a broad spectrum that includes predation, playfulness, and appetite. Because of this, catnip can influence positive training and therapeutic methods for cats.
An oft-overlooked basic need of many household pets is mental stimulation. Catnip is one tool you can use to enrich the environment for your cat.
Bringing it out occasionally for cats who feel the effect is a great way to create a positive change in the daily routine.
Catnip can be a great training enhancement if you have several cats who experience some stress living together.
Owners often employ pheromones, which can definitely be helpful. But catnip can create a calming effect and relieve tension. It also can have counterconditioning effects in multi-cat situations.
If you have ever had a puppy, you know that some of the most effective training methods involve redirection. You can do the same with a cat. Catnip can change your cat’s entire mood and focus, substituting acceptable behavior for aggression and anxiety.
In a way similar to how you use catnip as a diversion for unwelcome behavior, you can also use it to reinforce those actions that are desirable. You can bring out catnip as a high-value reward.
Finally, catnip has plenty of therapeutic potential. Phenolics and terpenes in Nepeta species have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and painkilling properties. Cytotoxic and antioxidant properties set Catnip up to be useful in cancer treatments.
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In this video, you will note what the plant looks like, the various forms of catnip delivery, and the reaction of the cats