What is catnip and why does it send our cats into a spin?
Most of us have heard of catnip, yet very few of us know what it actually is. Where does it come from? How does it work? And crucially, why does it drive our kitties crazy?
Yes, this elusive substance can transform even the most docile cat into a furry firecracker. One whiff and they’re hooked! But though it may sound like some sort of feline narcotic, catnip can provide a number of practical uses for your little fluff ball.
Related: Why Do Cats Have a “Mad Half Hour”?
What Is Catnip?
Catnip is a common herb in the mint family. Native to Europe but also growing in abundance throughout Asia and the United States, this greyish-green plant can easily be spotted by its fuzzy, heart-shaped leaves and thick stems. You may notice some growing near country roads or pathways.
The leaves and stem of catnip contain the essential oil nepetalactone, which is what sends cats into a spin. Interestingly, it’s not just our own little pet kitties that this active ingredient drives crazy. Cats of all shapes and sizes in the wild have been known to get a kick out of it, even lions!
What Does Catnip Do to Cats?
As is often the case with our four-legged friends, it all starts with the nose. Sensitivity to catnip is hereditary, so only around 50% of cats will feel its effects. However, once a susceptible feline picks up its scent, the magic begins. The oil inside the plant binds with the cat’s brain receptors responsible for releasing positive emotions, and as they smell it, a “feel-good” sensation begins to wash throughout their body.
After smelling it, a cat will often start to roll, chew or rub themselves into the herb so that they can release more of that alluring oil from its leaves. While “under the influence”, they may display far more hyperactive behaviour than normal, meowing and growling. Other kitties may just become mellow, chilled out purr machines. Either way, their “happy” receptors will be lighting up like a rocket.
Related: Why Do Cats Purr?
How Long Do the Effects Last?
The effects of catnip don’t tend to last too long, often fading after 10 to 15 mins. That said, it may take a couple of hours for their noses to fully return to earth and be susceptible to the herb again. The intensity of their reaction can also depend on the amount they’re exposed to. The more they consume, the stronger its effects will be.
Cats also won’t develop a reaction to it until they’re at least three to six months old. As such, kittens are immune to its charms. Though very rare, if your pet consumes too much catnip, it can lead to diarrhoea or vomiting, so it’s wise to make sure they’re not overindulging too much!
Advantages of Catnip
For cat owners, this magical herb’s effects can have several advantages.
If you feel like your kitty could use a little more exercise, treating them to a catnip toy can be a great way to keep them active. You could also try tucking a little catnip into one of their other toys. Just as one may be more interested in dancing after a few glasses of prosecco, catnip can ignite a strong sense of play within your kitty.
It can also be particularly helpful if you’re struggling to persuade your cat to use their new cat scratcher or climbing pole. If they’re proving resistant or uninterested, try applying a small amount of catnip on and around the scratcher. Once they detect its scent, they’ll begin to form a positive association with the object and become much more enthusiastic about using it.
As such, Catnip can be a fantastic tool in helping to train and discipline your cat, acting as a reward for good behaviour or a means of pointing them in the right direction. Catnip can also be used to help lower their stress levels and treat cats suffering from anxiety. It’s often used in animal shelters and veterinary clinics for this very purpose.
If kept for too long, the herb will begin to lose its potency. Ideally, try keeping it in the freezer within an airtight container to maximise its use. Also, If you’re feeling particularly green-fingered, why not have a go at growing your own? You can pick catnip up from most herb gardens. However you get your hands on some, if susceptible, your cat will be sure to thank you for it!
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