What is catnip?
(Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb of the mint family. Although originally native to Europe, it has been successfully imported to many countries of the world where it is often considered to be a weed! The plant can grow as high as 3 feet, has lots of branches and can be recognised by its clusters of small white purple-spotted flowers at the ends of its stems.
How does catnip work?
Catnip contains various aromatic oils including one called nepetalactone, a mild hallucinogen, which is the main cause of the clinical signs. The receptor for nepetalactone is in the vomeronasal organ (also known as Jacobson's organ) at the back of the cat's nose and catnip needs to be inhaled to cause its effect. Indeed it is a great chance to see a cat exhibit what is known as the Flehmen response where it pulls its gums back from its teeth and almost looks as if it is smiling (see picture below, right). By doing this, the cat presses its tongue against the roof of its mouth forcing air through the vomeronasal organ. This concentrates the smell and allows the cat to concentrate the scent: to smell-taste, rather than just smell it.
Cat owners often enjoy seeing the effect that catnip has on their pet. Catnip can be grown in the garden or purchased as a dry herb which can be sprinkled onto food, incorporated into toys or put onto a scratching post.
A recipe for catnip tea has been reported
1 heaped spoonful of catnip
125 ml boiling water
125 ml lactose free milk
Steep the catnip in boiling water for 10 minutes, stirring several times. Strain it. Add lactose free milk and serve.
Does catnip affect all cats?
No - not all cats react to catnip. Susceptibility to behavioural changes has been shown to be inherited as a dominant trait in cats. This means that cats with one or both copies of the autosomal dominant gene will show behavioural changes when exposed to catnip. The effect is not seen in kittens, and in fact very young kittens tend to avoid catnip. Susceptibility to catnip starts to develop once kittens are six to eight weeks of age, fully developing when they are about 12 weeks old.
In FAB's Cat Personality Survey 80 per cent of owners reported that their cats did react to catnip, which agrees with the estimate that 10 – 30 per cent don't respond to the plant.