Monday, April 2, 2012

Catnip (Nepeta cataria)

Catnip is a perennial herb and member of the Mint family Labiatae that  is well known   for it's ability to get cat's high. It is native to Europe & Asia, however has become naturalised in America & Canada after being introduced. There are approximately 250 species of Catnip, and this figure doesn't include hybrid species. Some of the more readily available ones are: 

Common Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
White flowers, grows up to 3 feet. This is the variety most cats enjoy. 

Camphor Catnip (Nepeta camphorata
White flowers with purple dots, grows up to 18 inches. Camphor scent.

Greek Catnip (Nepeta parnassica)
White, pale pink flowers, grows up to 18 inches.

Lemon Catnip (Nepeta cataria citriodora)
White flowers, spotted with purple, grows up to 3 feet. The leaves have a lemony scent.
Catmint (Nepeta mussinii)
Purple flowers. This plant has smallish, grey/green leaves. It grows up to 15 inches high. 

The name Nepeta is believed to have come from the town of Nepete in Italy. Cataria is thought to have come from the Latin word for cat. 

Catnip is also known by the following names:   Cataria,  Catmint, Catnep, Catrup, Cat's Heal All,  Cat's-play, Cat's Wort, Catswort, Catwort, Chi Hsueh Tsao, Field Balm, Garden Nep, Herba Cataria, Herba Catti, Nebada, Nep.
The active ingredient which causes this is an essential oil called nepetalactone, which can be found in the leaves & stem of the plant. Other constituents include Acetic Acid,  Alpha & beta-nepetalactone, Citral,  Nepetalactone,  Geraniol, Dipentene, Citronellol, Nerol, Butyric Acid, Valeric Acid and Tannins.

When a cat encounters catnip, it usually sniffs it, rubs against it, licks it & finally eats it. It's actually the sniffing that gets produces the high, it's believed that cats eat catnip to bruise the catnip & therefore release more of the nepetalactone. The high produced will usually last between five & ten minutes. When sniffed, catnip will stimulate a cat, however when eaten it will act as a sedative.

Around 50% of cats are affected by catnip, and those who are, are affected to differing degrees. Kittens younger than 8 weeks old aren't  able to enjoy it's effects. In fact, they show an aversion to it.  The response to catnip appears to be inherited as an autosomal gene. It's not just domesticated cats who enjoy the effects of catnip, many lot of wild species also enjoy it.  Cats can smell 1 part in a billion  in the air. Males & females, entire or desexed, there appears to be no one group who is more readily affected by catnip than another. 

Nepetalactone causes a hallucinogenic effect. Some say the effects are similar to LSD, others say similar to marijuana. Because cats roll on the floor, which mimics a female in estrus, it has been suggested that catnip acts as an aphrodisiac, but this is unlikely as males react in just the same way. What is likely is the cat is reacting to similar "feel good" pheromones released during  sexual courtship/activity. However, non sexual behaviour including playing, chasing & hunting can also be observed.  The response to catnip is via the olfactory system. Even cats who can't smell will can still respond to catnip. 

Catnip is not harmful to your cat. They won't overdose on it.  Most cats know when they've had enough & will refuse any further offers. 

Interestingly, researchers say that nepetalactone is about ten times more effective at repelling mosquitos than DEET, which is the active ingredient in most insect repellents. It was also discovered that catnip repels cockroaches too!* Plants aren't alone in containing nepetalactone, some insects & ants also contain it. It's been speculated that this protects them from insects.
Rats & mice are also believed to have a strong dislike of catnip & will avoid places where it grows.
Valerian also produces the same reaction in cats. As do plants which contain the chemical Actinidine.

No comments: