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The Low-Down on Catnip
Catnip, the mysterious herb that sends some cats into a happy, drooling frenzy while leaving others indifferent, is a hardy perennial that grows wild in many parts of the United States.  For centuries, it was used by healers as an herbal remedy that treated everything from headaches to stomachaches to colds.  Today, the most popular use of catnip is as a source of entertainment for our feline friends.

Catnip, or nepata cataria, has small, serrated leaves, ribbed stems, and tiny, white flowers, sometimes dotted in purple.  The pioneers introduced catnip to the U.S. as a part of their herb gardens, and being a member of the hardy mint family, it soon escaped confinement and began to grow wild.

Why do Cats Love It?
Approximately half to two-thirds of the cat population (depending on heredity) is affected by the herb in various ways.  They might roll around on the floor drooling in bliss, become very affectionate, run quick circles around the living room, or act a bit aggressive.  If you’ve ever seen your cat show any of these behaviors after playing with a catnip-stuffed toy, you may wonder what in the world it is about the stuff that makes him or her go so crazy.

Catnip has an ingredient in it, called Nepetalactone, which is released as a particular scent when the leaves of the plant are crushed and the plant’s oils are secreted.  For five to fifteen minutes, the inhalation of this ingredient affects a receptor in your cat’s olfactory system and triggers feelings of euphoria and playfulness.  After the reaction has subsided, it can be experienced all over again in about an hour, with re-exposure to the catnip.

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Surprisingly, it is not only domesticated cats that have such strong reactions to Nepetalactone.  Large cats, tigers especially, are very sensitive to the effects of catnip. 

Some people worry that cats exhibiting such strong reactions to catnip might suffer side effects from it, but adverse reactions are very rare.  The results of catnip exposure last only a short time, and may be followed by sleepy or sedated behavior, which is common with cats that eat the herb instead of just rolling on it.  Some cats, such as the very young or the very old, may show no reaction to catnip at all.  If you do observe vomiting or diarrhea in your pet after they’ve eaten catnip, limit their consumption.  And don’t worry about your pet becoming addicted – catnip is a non-habit forming substance.

Growing Your Own Catnip
Catnip is easy to grow in many climates, but exercise caution if you don’t want it to take over your entire backyard.  You can find catnip seeds or plants at most greenhouses, or growing wild in fields.  One way to stop its rapid growth is to plant it in a submerged container, such as a plastic planter, or a bucket with holes drilled in it. 

Once the plant reaches maturity, pinch off the leaves and either dry them and store them in a sealed container, or use them fresh.  You can give your cat the leaves directly, or sew them into a small pouch for extended playtime fun.  The catnip in toys does eventually lose its effectiveness, however, so keep that in mind if you choose to buy your catnip-enhanced toys at a pet store – they may easily be past their shelf life.

If your furry friend is a member of the population of cats that enjoys catnip, feel free to let your pet indulge.  Catnip is easy to grow at home, virtually free of negative effects, and its stimulating properties are enjoyed by big and small cats everywhere.

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Some of our kitties helped Dr. Fitzgerald and the CW2 News Staff with a special segment on Catnip,
visit In the Spotlight for more information!

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