By Annie Tucker Morgan, DivineCaroline
A while back, I bought a bed for my eleven-year-old cat. It’s both functional and stylish, it’s just the right size to fit my cat’s body comfortably, and it came with an overstuffed cushion that puts most pillowtop mattresses to shame. As I forked over thirty bucks for my purchase, I thought, This is going to be worth every penny–no more cat hair on the couch, no more cat paws on my pillow in the middle of the night.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t have been more off-base–my cat wouldn’t go near the thing. I physically forced him into the new bed dozens of times, but the moment I thought I’d gotten him settled, he’d just sneak out and jump right back up onto the sofa. I debated selling the bed at a garage sale or just leaving it out on the sidewalk for some lucky fellow cat owner to take, but before I resorted to those desperate measures, I wanted to try one last tactic: I bought some catnip at the pet store and rubbed a little of it into the bed’s cushion. Lo and behold, my cat bolted off the couch, dove face-first into the pillow, rubbed his head on it, ate a few leaves, and finally settled in for a snooze–and he’s barely left the bed since. Needless to say, I now count catnip as one of life’s little miracles, and I keep a supply of it in my house at all times.
I knew that if catnip could lure my stubborn cat into its web, it must surely have a similar effect on other headstrong felines. As it turns out, even humans aren’t immune to its charms. But first, let’s back up–exactly what is catnip, and why is it so potent?
A Weed by Any Other Name
Catnip is a mystery to many people, but it’s actually a very common perennial herb that belongs to the mint family labiatae. Though catnip is native to Europe and Asia, it’s become naturalized in the U.S. and Canada and is now so widespread as to be considered a weed in parts of North America. The type of catnip that most cats like goes by the scientific name Nepeta cataria, but more than 250 other varieties of the herb exist.
Dude, Where’s My Litterbox?
Catnip is also a distant relative of marijuana, which explains why more than 50 percent of cats experience a high from it. Though you’ll usually see cats eating or rubbing up against catnip, the herb’s scent is actually what triggers their altered state. Catnip’s active ingredient–an essential oil called nepetalactone, which can be found in the leaves and the stem of the plant–causes powerful olfactory responses that manifest themselves in a wide range of feline behavior, from drooling to aggression to complete sedation. In some cats, nepetalactone even has a hallucinogenic effect not unlike that of LSD. And though the high lasts for only five or ten minutes, cats who are genetically wired to feel catnip’s effects can’t get enough of it; indeed, scientists believe that the reason cats eat the herb is that the act of chewing bruises the leaves and releases even more nepetalactone scent in the process.
The good news is, unlike some of the drugs humans ingest, catnip is not addictive or harmful to cats’ health. In fact, catnip may actually be beneficial to cats’ digestion; they need to eat green, leafy plants sometimes, and while outdoor cats can get their fill of grass, catnip provides indoor cats with the roughage they’re otherwise deprived of.
As much as many cats enjoy the catnip experience, you won’t find your pet overdosing on it. Just as cats can identify when they’ve eaten enough food, they know when to say no to nepetalactone. And some cats–particularly senior cats and kittens under three months old–aren’t affected by catnip at all.