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Written by Janet Goodman, BT Contributor   
June 2017

Catnip affects more than half of all cats

Tbigstock-Orange-Cat-Sniffing-Dried-Catn-82197998he Nepeta cataria species of the mint family is a perennial herb that can grow up to three feet high and produce white flowering spikes. It is the most common species of the Nepeta genus in commercial use for feline catnip.

Native to Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean regions of Africa, catnip has been used for its human medicinal qualities for centuries. Introduced to North America by 17th-century European settlers, the herb was adopted by native peoples to treat headaches, cramps, bruising, swelling, nervousness, insomnia, indigestion, and other ailments.

But with the invention of cat litter after World War II, which made it possible for more households to keep indoor cats (see “Soaking Up the History of Cat Litter,” July 2015), and the explosion of the pet industry, catnip has become better known as an ingredient in feline toys than as an herb for human healing.

According to Scientific American, 50 to 80 percent of domestic cats, as well as big cats (lions, tigers, leopards, cougars, etc.) have a hereditary sensitivity to the oil in the leaves and stems of catnip. When it is inhaled, nepetalactone, a key chemical in the oil, can cause euphoric and stimulating behavioral responses that last about ten minutes. Common cat reactions to the scent include drooling, rolling around, flipping over, rubbing on the herb, and hyperactivity -- pretty much happily but temporarily going cuckoo bananas.

When the plant is eaten, however, it acts as a sedative. The veterinary websites petmd.com and pets.webmd.com consider ingesting catnip safe and non-addictive for cats, while the Humane Society warns that overindulgence can make cats sick. The ASPCA lists catnip as a toxic plant that can cause vomiting and diarrhea when eaten.

The Australian website Cat-World reports that the nepetalactone adheres to tissue in the roof of the nasal cavity, which has ten times more surface area in cats than in humans, and has 200 million scent sensors compared to our 5 million. Scent signals are sent to various parts of the brain for processing. This highly evolved scent mechanism may help explain why cats are more likely than humans to get high from catnip.

The Kansas City, Missouri, catnip company Meowijuana markets Southern California and Washington State-grown organic catnip with the slogan: “For cats who need the weed.” They sell their products in a number of forms that can be sniffed or eaten, including buds, leaves, flakes, sprays, and even rolled blunts, branding themselves to the recreational herb-minded, cat owner consumer.

Animal Planet’s My Cat from Hell cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy (love him!) has experience with various feline reactions to catnip. Writing on the subject in 2010 for the Little Big Cat blog, he advised pet owners to know their cats well before giving them what he describes as psychotropic (affecting emotions and behavior) and hallucinogenic catnip. He also warned against turning cats into “mean drunks.”

“A shy, inhibited cat is likely to have a relatively subdued response [to catnip], while a domineering cat is more likely to have an aggressive response,” he writes. “A cat prone to petting-induced overexcitement may give your arm the four-paw wraparound and take a hefty bite out of it for good measure. Expect the unexpected until you know exactly how your cat responds, time after time.”

In situations where Galaxy reintroduces cats that have had a relationship history of fighting, he removes all catnip completely from their environment. For problem cats, he recommends using mild home-grown catnip over more potent store-bought catnip, which he suggests causes “lap-running and general overexcitement.” In potentially combustible scenarios, he also opts for ingested catnip, instead of the sniffed catnip, because it calms rather than arouses. Often a catnip-stoned kitty is safer to be around than a catnip-hyper kitty.

At certain times, Galaxy also uses catnip toys to diffuse or distract cats, or to enhance natural hunting instincts in them. It’s arguably his go-to tool in feline rehabilitation and training. A line of his catnip products is sold on his website, as well as in Petco and Petsmart stores.

Besides having medicinal qualities for humans and euphoric benefits for felines, catnip has been studied for its ability to repel insects. In 2001, Science Daily published research showing that the nepetalactone in catnip repels mosquitoes better than DEET -- some ten times better, in fact -- although it is less effective as a skin repellent. Two years earlier, the same Iowa State University researchers discovered that catnip oil repels cockroaches.

A 2003 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that nepetalactone repelled and even killed termites. USDA tests in 2010 showed that wax-based catnip pellets in cattle feedlots repelled 99 percent of stable flies -- a major economic foe of the cattle industry.

 

Janet Goodman is a Miami Shores-based dog trainer, animal-talent wrangler, and principal of Good Dog Bad Dog Inc. Contact her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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