Catnip is the common name of Nepeta cataria, a light green plant with light coloured flowers in the mint family and grows in many regions across Canada. Originating in Europe, these plants made their way to North America with travelers immigrating. Eventually being used for centuries as medicinal herbs for humans and later as a source of enrichment for cats of all sizes.
The biologically active component in catnip is a volatile oil called cis-trans-Nepetalactone which was first discovered in 1941 by Samuel McElvain at the University of Wisconsin. This active ingredient binds to the olfactory receptors in a cat’s nose, triggering some unique neurological responses comparable to their reaction to certain sex pheromones. A cat’s sensitivity to catnip is an inherited trait, with reactions lasting from mere minutes up to a half an hour. Their reaction to catnip decreases over time due to gradual nose blindness and once this occurs, it will take upwards of one to two hours for cats to detect and react to the active component again. When catnip is ingested, the active component along with the majority of the metabolites and some unchanged cis,trans-Nepetalacton) are excreted in the urine.
Studies suggest approximately 60% of cats aged 6 months or older will have a behavioral reaction to catnip with the most common reactions being purring, licking, and rolling around in the herb. If your cat is one of the few that doesn’t react to catnip and you would like to find an enriching alternative, Silver Vine may be a great choice. Silver Vine is also part of the same family as catnip though it does contain additional active compounds that bind to olfactory receptors and elicit a reaction.
It should come as no surprise that wild cats react to catnip in a very similar manner to their domestic counterparts. Interestingly enough, they do not all have the same intensity of reaction. Lions and jaguars often react most strongly to catnip, even at a lower dose. Tigers, cougars, and bobcats have less of a reaction when exposed to the same amount as the lions and jaguars. The greatest difference between domestic cats and wild cats is the length of their responses with wild cats continuing to exhibit behavioral responses an hour or more after their initial exposure.
Over exposure to catnip can result in certain health concerns such as vomiting, diarrhea and dizziness, all of which tend to subside a few hours after the catnip has been removed from their surroundings. In addition to these health concerns, over exposure to catnip can cause the cat to become immune and diminish their overall reaction to the plant. When introducing your cat to catnip, it is important to start with a small amount (a pinch or two) and increase over time if required. Fresh catnip is more potent than dried catnip, so keep that in mind when determining which form you will be presenting to your cat.
Oil spray is an alternative form for catnip which needs to be used in careful amounts since it is highly concentrated and thus extremely potent. Many people will use this alternative form on items like scratching toys and scratching posts to garner their cat’s interest. Another form often used are catnip bubbles which can help increase a cat's daily activity amount by creating a fun game of chasing and popping the bubbles. This is a great way to combine both physical activity and mental enrichment, resulting in an enjoyable experience for both cats and their owners.
When storing your dried catnip or catnip-infused items, it is best to keep them in a dark, airtight container. The active ingredient cis-trans-Napetalactone is UV photosensisitve and if exposed to sunlight for prolonged periods of time will eventually lose its scent. When properly stored, catnip and catnip-infused items can retain their potency for years.
In multi-pet households, one of the most common questions asked is whether or not catnip is safe for dogs. Rest assured that yes, catnip is safe for dogs. When exposed to catnip, dogs do not elicit the same type of reaction, in fact their reaction is opposite that of a cats. Catnip typically acts as a sedative for dogs and can help relieve gastrointestinal upset when offered as a prepared tincture or tea.
Despite widespread use, it is still not fully understood by researching why these obligate carnivores seek out catnip and other plants within the mint family. Some speculate that it may have to do with the potential insect repellent properties while others believe that it is solely for its euphoric effects. Regardless of the underlying reason, it is obvious that cats love catnip (in any form)!
Do you have a feline companion and are interested in feeding a natural diet?