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  • Rachel Doran

Catnip 101

Cats are funny creatures. Even the savviest cat owners don’t understand their cats all of the time. And when you add that notorious herb, catnip, to the mix all bets are off. Most of us cat owners know what it’s like to watch our cats dart around the house under the euphoric effects of catnip. But what’s the deal with catnip exactly... is it safe, why does it cause our feline friends to lose their cool, and can we save ourselves some money and grow it ourselves?

What is Catnip?

Catnip is a natural substance. It is an herb that is native to Southern Europe, the Middle East and Southern Asia. It has been naturalized to grow in both North America and New Zealand. It is a relative of the mint family, and it is a very tall growing perennial with healthy plants getting as tall as 3 feet in height.

Why Does Catnip Affect Cats at All?

Why Cats Love Catnip

Catnip contains a chemical compound called nepetalactone that reacts with certain parts of the kitty’s brian causing them to feel those famous side effects. When the compound is inhaled, via sniffing, cats can get a “high” feeling.

Typical reactions to catnip include sniffing a lot, running around, jumping, rolling around or rubbing themselves on the herb and just generally being more playful. The effects typically only last for about 10 minutes before they wear off, and you may see you feline coming back to the scene of the herb for more.

Alternatively, if your cat ingests the catnip, the effects are a little different. Rather than causing them to go temporarily insane, cats will react the opposite. This is because when consumed catnip can have a sedative effect. In fact, this is even the case with humans, which is why for a long time, our ancestors would drink catnip tea in a similar fashion as we do now with chamomile.

Catnip Safety and Considerations

Is it safe? Yes. Catnip is perfectly safe for cats. Cats cannot die from an overdose on catnip. Although, eating too much catnip can cause stomach upset resulting in vomiting and diarrhea. These digestive episodes will clear up on their own, but it is always a good idea to check in with your vet in the event this occurs.

There are a few key considerations to keep in mind when dealing with catnip. First, not all cats are affected by catnip. Sensitivity to the nepetalactone is thought to be an inherited trait. About 30% of cats do not have a sensitivity at all. This means that lots of kitties may not even give the stuff a second look. Fun (and scary) Fact: Even large cats are affected by catnip. I don’t know about you, but I do not want to witness a jaguar running around “high” on catnip.

Second, if your kitty is too young, they will not be affected. Kittens do not develop a sensitivity to catnip until around the age of 3 months. Third, if your cat is affected by catnip, the effects will diminish if their systems become acclimated to it. Consider only exposing them to catnip every 2 to 3 weeks in order to prevent them from getting used to it, thus removing the fun of the whole experience.

Finally, if your cat has never had catnip before, it is a good idea to watch them closely when they first experience it. Some cats can become aggressive, anxious, or scared. As pet owners, we should also strive to keep our pets calm and safe. If you feel your pet cannot safely tolerate catnip; meaning they are becoming mean to you or other pets or they may hurt themselves, it’s best not to expose them to it again.

How to grow your own catnip

Growing Your Own Catnip

Catnip is naturalized in the US so we can all grow our own if we so desire. The plant grows best outdoors. *But remember cats LOVE this stuff so your garden may become a lot more popular to neighborhood cats.* If you are starting from seed, the seeds will need to be damaged first prior to planting. An easy way to do this is to freeze them and then soak them for a few hours in a bowl of water before planting. This will make the shell of the seed weaker.

Catnip is a very easy plant to grow. It prefers full sun but is hardy and will tolerate less on occasion. The plants can get quite large so you will want to space plants about 20 inches apart when they start to grow. They do not require much water (great news for us in Arizona!). Also, you will want to remove all flowers on the plant before they go to seed or the plant will take over your whole garden.

Catnip is a fun, natural, and economical addition to any fully stocked cat home. If your cat is lucky enough to be able to enjoy the herb, you can rest easy knowing the plant is perfectly safe. Just don’t go overboard or you may have to clean up broken lamps and cat diarrhea; neither of which sounds like a good time.

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