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Introduction to Catnip

Catnip and your cat 101

 

MetPet.com Staff Writer

Nepeta.  There are over 200 species of the genus known generically as catnip or catmint. Catnip, Nepeta cataria, is a perennial with soft, dark green leaves, flexible stems and tiny purple and white flowers.  It can be grown from seeds, it self seeds easily and grows to about 3 feet tall.  Catmint, Nepeta mussinii, has gray-green leaves and small spikes of lavender flowers.  It can also be grown from seeds and grows to about 1 foot tall.  There are other variations many of which are readily available as seedlings in local nurseries.  In temperate climates, these plants are evergreen and grow readily in windows boxes or in the ground in full or partial sun.  The dried leaves can be brewed into tea for human consumption (we're partial to coffee ourselves and haven't tried it yet) and is said to encourage relaxation. 

Nepetalactone   This is the active ingredient which is reputed to cause a "high" in cats that is similar to marijuana in humans.  Whether this is the case or not, cats who are able to react to catnip appear to be quite happy and suffer no ill effects.  Smelling the catnip is enough to cause a reaction although cats may also eat the plant.  It is also said that catnip can improve a cat's digestion.  Overexposure to catnip can cause cats to become  immune to its effects so catnip toys should be put away from time to time. 

60-70%  Individual cats have varying ability to react to catnip.  Some cats (30-40%) show absolutely no interest and some cats lose all composure.  We have heard that the Asian breeds such as Siamese and Burmese  tend to have less of a reaction but individual reactions vary enormously. Kittens under 6 months do not appear to be affected.  Interestingly, tigers have the same reaction as house cats.  

Growing  Luckily, catnip is rather easy to grow even if you are not a particularly attentive gardener.  Where to grow it is the most important consideration.   If you are not careful, your beautiful catnip and herb garden  may not survive the onslaught of the neighborhood tom cat. We have seen great, bushy mounds of catnip plowed through and squashed in a few minutes by a single, ecstatic cat.  Growing catnip next to your favorite, delicate plants is just asking for trouble.

Growing catnip inside the house in a delicate pot is also asking for trouble unless your cat absolutely cannot reach it.  One of our friends presented an entire pot to his cat and then spent the rest of the evening vacuuming the remains of dirt and plant out of the carpet.  If you want to grow it inside, start with a healthy seedling in a pot full of rich soil.  Find a sunny window and hang the plant from a sturdy cord from the ceiling.  You just want to make sure that your cat cannot leap from a sill into the pot!  Strange things do happen in the middle of the night. 

We have had as much luck with catmint as with catnip.  The one caveat is that, as with most mints, catmint is invasive and can dominate a yard.  Growing it in a planter to contain it is a good idea.  

Start with a small, healthy plant from a good, local nursery.  Those of us with black thumbs have a much better time when we are not struggling with seeds or sickly seedlings. Catnip grows quickly providing someone actually waters and fertilizes it.  Catnip grows in full or partial sun in rich, well-drained soil.  

To use, just snip off a leaf or a stem with flowers and present it to your grateful cat.  If he shows no interest, try rubbing it between your fingers to release more of the scent.  Just be careful because he may try to chew on your fingers.  We suggest that you do not play or tease your cat with the catnip since you are liable to get seriously scratched or bitten.  If you have never been around a cat in the throes of catnip mania, you may be surprised by the intensity of your cat's reaction.

Catnip can also be hung in a bunch upside down in a cool place to dry.  We are partial, however, to not going to such trouble since dried catnip is available in many easy-to-use forms.  If you have fresh catnip, it is best to use it fresh. 

Commercial  There are different types, grades and forms of catnip on the market.  There is organic and not organic.  There is the highest grade leaf and blossom.  There are the lower "toy" grades which we affectionately calls twigs.  There are sprays, oils and compressed pellets.  There are catnip filled balls, shaker bottles and an endless assortment of pretty (and pretty ugly) stuffed toys.  Like any other herb, catnip can lose its smell and potency if not packaged properly.  The most intense smells come from the leaf and blossoms so we tend to forgo the twigs.  Catnip is a fairly expensive product so choose higher end products in order to get enough of the oils.  Some 'catnip' toys have so little actual catnip in them that cats sniff them and walk away. 

Entertainment   A lively and inquisitive creature, cats will easily become bored and listless without play.  A couple of times a week, we give our cats a fresh leaf, a small mound (a teaspoon or so) of high quality catnip or a freshly filled toy to roll around.  When the rolling, licking and post-catnip grooming is over (say 30 minutes) we remove the remainder to avoid overexposure. 

We avoid putting catnip directly on treasured surfaces.   This would include your Persian rugs, antique Queen Anne chairs and the like.   Our friends placed a small mound on their wall-to-wall carpeting.  After their cat ate all of the catnip and sucked the carpet clean, she scratched and chewed a nice round hole all the way down to the concrete foundation.  She is now limited to a toy that is then taken up and placed in the closet!

Refresh Your Toys!  After a few weeks, your catnip toys may be losing their initial 'punch'.  A high-quality toy with real catnip inside can be rubbed and kneaded to release more of the essential oils and scents.  Try taking some of the dried oregano or parsley you have in your kitchen.   Sniff the dried leaves in the palm of your hand.  Then crush them between your fingers and see how much more scent you can smell.  You can refresh catnip and catnip toys in the same way. 

Behavior Modification  Placing a little catnip on a new scratching post can encourage a cat to try it out and forgo shredding the couch.  We like working in a few teaspoons of dried catnip into the carpet or sisal.  A long tube sock with catnip in the toe can be tied around a scratching post as well.  

Enjoy a good sniff!

Related information:
Catnip Tea for People

 
 
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