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Catnip

Cat sleeping in catnip plant
black and white cat sleeping in catnip plant

The leaves, stems and seedpods of catnip are covered with microscopic bulbs called trichomes which store the essential oil until they reach maturity and burst. External forces, such as a hungry bug biting into a leaf or a passing animal brushing up against the plant and bruising the leaves, can also release the oil.

That the essential oil is contained inside the fragile bulbs may explain why cats are seen rubbing up against and even chewing, the leaves. Cats gain nothing by ingesting the leaves because the activity of nepetalactone is most likely centered in the nasal tissues. But chewing the leaves will rupture the tiny packets of oil and release nepetalactone into the air.

Although catnip is best known for its intoxicating influence on cats, humans also make use of its biological properties. Long before Europeans were introduced to Asian teas, the infusion of catnip leaves was a popular beverage, according to “The Book of Tea and Coffee." Like chamomile tea, the catnip brew has a mild calming effect on humans.

Folk medicine suggests many other beneficial uses of catnip. The herb has been described as a remedy for colic, minor aches and pains in the gums and teeth, and indigestion to name just a few examples.

The catnip species originated in Europe and parts of Asia, but its medicinal use earned it a place in colonial gardens in North America. The plant soon escaped to the wild and now can be found widely across Canada and the U.S.  For commercial use in teas and cat toys, it is cultivated mainly in the Pacific Northwest and parts of Canada, including Alberta and British Columbia. 

So let your kitties play with catnip; it sure makes them happy!

Our doctors at Cascade Animal Clinic get asked a lot, "Is catnip safe for my cat?" And we say yes! Even the most fickle feline cannot resist the lure of catnip, or Nepeta cataria. Catnip is sold in pet stores as the raw herb or essential oil, often in combination with cat toys.

One cannot observe catnip’s remarkable and sudden, if transient, effect on cat behavior without suspecting that something chemical is afoot.  In fact, the key to catnip-induced friskiness is a compound called nepetalactone. 

Nepetalactone is one of several related compounds known to initiate the classic catnip response sequence: sniffing, licking and chewing, followed by head shaking, body and head rubbing and then repeated head–over-heels rolling. Similarly active compounds are actinidine, iridomyrmecin and matatabilactone.

A thorough explanation for catnip-induced calisthenics is lacking, but experts infer that cats receive the necessary stimuli from smell and possibly taste receptors for nepetalactone and similar compounds.

Until they are around three months old, cats are indifferent to catnip. And many cats, as many as half, never develop catnip sensitivity. The sensitivity is inherited. A kitten with only one catnip sensitive parent has a one in two chance of inheriting the catnip sensitivity. A kitten whose parents both exhibit sensitivity has a three in four chance. Experts say there is no correlation between catnip sensitivity and sex, color or breed.

Catnip is a member of the mint family of plants. Its cousins include basil, oregano, and spearmint. All these plants produce essential oils that contain flavorful and aromatic terpenoids such as limonene, menthol, and spearmint. 

Cat eating catnip plant