If you have a cat, you’ve probably offered her catnip. Some pets think catnip is some form of kitty heaven, but what about those that turn up their persnickety noses?
Here’s the real scoop on the feline favorite and some options if catnip doesn’t make your cat swoon.
How does catnip work?
Nepeta cataria, which is a perennial herb of the mint family, is the true catnip plant that enthralls many felines. Native to Europe and Asia, it’s now quite common in many parts of the world, including much of the U.S. and southern Canada.
The chemical compound nepetalactone is the culprit for attracting and stimulating cats and is found in both the leaves and the stems of the plant. So how does catnip affect cats?
Although we think catnip has some kind of a magical effect on all kitties, for some cats, it does nothing. They just sniff it and move on. For other cats, though, smelling catnip makes them go bonkers. According to the Humane Society of the United States, researchers believe that catnip targets feline “happy” receptors within the brain. When eaten, however, it can have the opposite effect, and make your cat mellow out.
Catnip is noted to have a similar effect on cats that marijuana has on humans. Cats often react to it by rolling, flipping around, rubbing, jumping and eventually just zoning out. Oftentimes, cats will also growl or meow, or they can become hyper or aggressive if you go near them. Some owners actually use it to reduce anxiety in housebound cats.
The effects usually last for approximately 10-15 minutes and then wear off. Young kittens aren’t attracted to the scent of catnip. Cats may get sick if they eat too much. If a cat is habitually exposed to it, it could lose interest in the once-enticing herb.
Alternatives to catnip
Russell Swift has been practicing holistic veterinary medicine in south Florida for more than 25 years and now formulates nutritional supplements for Pet’s Friend. “Since only a minority of cats respond to catnip, I have worked with many other natural options,” he explains.
L-theanine, which is a compound from green tea, is one of Swift’s favorites. He begins with 50 milligrams and works his way up from there.
“It won’t sedate, but will often calm,” Swift states. “Valerian root and kava kava are herbal alternatives to catnip but are more sedating than theanine. I start with one-fifth of the human dose.”
The active ingredient in valerian root is called actinidine. Cat owners add valerian to their pet’s food and some might stuff it in a toy. It has a very similar stimulating effect to catnip, but it has a strong urine smell that some can’t take.
Silver vine, or Actinidia polygamais, is yet another alternative. It’s also known as Japanese catnip since it’s the most popular cat treat in all of Asia. Its active ingredient is also actinidine and can have a more potent effect than catnip, so it’s a good idea to try it with your cat in very small doses.
Acalypha indica, also known as cat grass or Indian nettle, is actually a medicinal plant that is common in West Africa. The effect of Acalypha indica is explained to be more powerful than catnip, however, only the root of the plant is attractive to cats. Lemongrass, a native herb to India and Sri Lanka, is another option.
Swift went on to explain that he never used catnip that much in his practice.
“Most cats didn’t go for it. It is known as a digestive tract herb in humans,” he stated.
Household kitties aren’t the only ones who are absolutely smitten by the allure of catnip. The tantalizing herb can also have a similar effect on the great big cats such as lions, tigers, and cougars.