Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb of the mint family with small lavender flowers. Needless to say, cats love it. Catnip toys abound at retail, but if you have a green thumb, grow your own. For unmatched entertainment, let your kitty indulge in a little of the harmless herb.
A mildly hallucinogenic essential oil, nepetalactone is the major component of catnip. It's found in the plant's leaves and stems. Cats use their Jacobson’s organ to inhale catnip, which suggests they “smell-taste” it. This extra organ is located in the roof of the mouth and is connected to the nasal passage. When your cat uses it, he pulls his gums back from its teeth, presses his tongue against the roof of his mouth and appears to smile. Felix’s response to inhaling catnip is similar to his reaction to cat pheromones.
Catnip produces a stereotypical response – Felix will rub his face in it, lick it, roll on it, twist and flip around on the floor, and drool. Some cats make noises – meowing and growling at the same time. Others become hyperactive and run around, practically bouncing off the walls. The effects last about 10 minutes, after which the cat seems to zone out. It may be two hours before he’ll react again. Meanwhile, not all cats are affected by catnip. Catnip sensitivity is an inherited trait; around 50 percent of cats are not affected. You won’t know until your kitten is about 3 months to 6 months old whether he will respond to catnip.
Once your kitty’s catnip high has faded, don’t be surprised to see him head to the food bowl. Catnip is an appetite stimulant for most cats; some vets suggested it as a natural way to get your kitty to eat more if he needs to. Decreased appetite in your cat requires a visit to the vet to make sure he doesn’t have an underlying issue.
Smelling vs. Eating
Some cats will eat catnip, possibly simply as a means of bruising the leaves to release more aroma. Catnip acts as a mild sedative when ingested. The mellowing may be accompanied by decreased appetite.
Leslie Darling has been a writer since 2003, writing regularly for "Mississippi Magazine" and "South Mississippi Living," specializing in food and wine, animals and pets, and all things Southern. She is a graduate of the University of New Orleans.