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What is Catnip?

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What is catnip? Well we know for sure that cats go crazy for it on a level that’s on par with an excited kid on Christmas morning. But what makes up this treat and why does it have such a strong impact on our kitties?

“Catnip is actually an herb in the mint family and is related to spearmint and oregano,” explains Dr. Judy Morgan DVM, Clayton Veterinary Associates in NJ. The crushed leaves or oils that are typically used in cat toys spark energetic and sensory playtime. In fact, it’s so powerful that all of the animals in the cat family— not just domesticated cats— have the ability to respond to catnip.

“I have grown a couple of catnip plants myself and to me it looks like a weed with toothy leaves and the square stem grows quite large – even in a NYC apartment with limited natural light,” shares Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, staff doctor at the Animal Medical Center in NYC. But, not all catnips are the same; some are more potent than others, depending on growing conditions, soil type and water availability.

The essential oil in catnip called nepetalactone is what can stimulates your cat once they smell it, triggering those happy, feel-good pheromones. The result usually involves sniffing, chewing, rolling and rubbing— a characteristic of female sexual behavior.

You may also notice your cat batting the catnip, which is a characteristic of play behavior, or kicking which is associated with predatory behavior. “The chemosensory reaction is mediated by the main (smell) olfactory system of the cat brain,” says Dr. Hohenhaus. But, when kitties eat catnip they experience similar reactions.

Aside from motivating and exciting your cat to play, catnip may have some other useful purposes, too. The herb is an antioxidant that has antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. “There is also a significant study conducted by medicinal entomologists that reports catnip repels stable flies, dust mites, mosquitoes and deer ticks,” says Dr. Hohenhaus.

Catnip will lose its effect if it becomes stale so store any extra in an airtight baggie or container in the freezer. “Purchase fresh catnip if you really want to give your cat an entertaining time,” suggests Dr. Morgan.

Of course, not every feline has the same response to catnip. Kittens and elderly cats are more likely to not have a strong reaction to the treat. “I would hypothesize some cats lack a receptor in their olfactory system or brain and that’s why they don’t respond,” says Dr. Hohenhaus.

Whether or not your pet craves catnip, like any treat you shouldn’t give it to them too much as to avoid overstimulation or they may become uninterested it.

Image: dzika_mrowka via Shutterstock


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Caitlin Ultimo is a writer & editor who has been published on PetMD, her work specializes in pet, family & beauty writing.