Crazy About Catnip

Some cats can't get enough of catnip, but is too much dangerous? Find out the facts about this inspiring herb. A catnip toy may be one way of getting an overweight cat to engage in some much-needed exercise.

Fluffy sniffs the rug, shakes her head, then rubs her chin and cheeks on the carpet. Purring, she flops to the floor and rolls her body in figure eights. Springing to her feet, she dashes across the room, chasing an imaginary mouse. Has Fluffy gone mad? No, it's just that old cat magic at work catnip. What is it in catnip that makes cats go, well crazy? The secret lies in the leaves which, when crushed, release a special oil.

Reactions to catnip range from excitement to relaxation to anxiety. No two cats react in the same way. When the substance's scent is released, it triggers a pleasure center in the cat's brain. This chemical is what gives cats their catnip "high." Not all felines respond to this fanciful feline flora, however. "Cats usually have a catnip gene," says Dr. Carol Tice, DVM, of the Cat Clinic in Cary, North Carolina. "They are either born with the potential ability to recognize and react to catnip or they are not." If your new kitten is ignoring her new catnip toy, there's another potential reason: Catnip has no effect on very young cats. "The range in kittens is probably 3 to 8 months of age for it to work, " says Tice.

Catnip also is often called a feline aphrodisiac. "The behavior induced in some cats by catnip can resemble some of the behavior you would see when a female cat is in heat," says Tice. Even if your cat does respond to catnip, not all reactions will be the same. "There's no typical response to catnip, though it makes most cats goofy," says Tice. "Catnip makes some cats roll, some nudge, some mellow, some hyper and some irritable a normally placid cat may suddenly become aggressive with other cats. It may also stimulate the appetite or even reduce anxiety in some cats as it can have a calming effect."

Is There a Limit?

Can your cat get too much of a good thing? Tice says no: "It's perfectly safe and not addictive. I don't know of any catnip "hangover". How long the effect lasts will depend both on the individual cat and how much the cat has inhaled. The effect usually doesn't last longer than 15 - 20 minutes. Catnip is so safe that it's been prescribed for human use for many years. It's also known to soothe, relax, and even relieve some digestive problems, sleeplessness, menstrual cramping, headaches and fevers.

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Grow Your Own Catnip

Sow the seeds outdoors in the early spring, in lots of sun. Seeds take one to two weeks to germinate. Catnip can also be grown from cuttings placed directly in the soil. After a plant has flowered, cut off four to eight inches. (The plant will grow back and might return the next season if the winter isn't too severe.)

To dry catnip, strip off all the leaves and discard the stems. Spread the leaves two inches deep on trays. Set them in an area with good air circulation. "Stir" the leaves twice a day for two to three weeks. When leaves become brittle, crumble and make flakes, store them in an airtight container. To let your cat enjoy it, sprinkle it on the floor "perhaps at the base of her scratching post" or tie some up in an old sock for a quick toy.

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