There are “intoxicating” substances of plant origin not only for humans: There are also numerous examples in the animal world of animals consuming plants and fruits that have a special effect on them. Many wild animals are known to use fermented fruit, even to the point of getting “tipsy”. Cats have chosen a much safer substance for themselves: catnip. Depending on how it is administered, this amazing plant is a coveted “intoxicant” for many cats, but it can also have a calming effect.
What exactly is catnip?
A small digression into botany: Catnip, more rarely also known as “cat balm” and scientifically correctly known as Nepeta cataria, is a herbaceous plant from the mint family. Catnip is perennial, reaches a height of up to one meter, and originally comes from southern Europe, Asia, and Africa, i.e. warmer climate zones. The flowers of catnip, which appear in the second half of summer, are small, white or bluish, and are clustered in a spike-like arrangement on the stems. The leaves are gray-green and hairy tomentose.
The special thing about the pretty plant is its essential oils: their scent is tart, reminiscent of a mixture of mint and lemon, and is also very pleasant for the human nose. What is simply an attractive plant scent for our comparatively weak sense of smell usually triggers a firework of fragrant impulses and strange behavior via the sensitive cat’s nose.
What is the catnip effect?
When confronted with catnip, most cats begin to behave in seemingly strange ways: dancing around the plant, rubbing against it to take in its scent; some animals also try to eat from it, lick from it or roll on the ground devotedly.
However, the cats do not get into a permanent intoxication: about five minutes to half an hour later, the cat usually loses interest and turns to other things. What exactly cats find so stimulating about the scent of catnip is largely unclear. It’s probably not an aphrodisiac, as neutered animals also respond to the scent. It is interesting, however, that kittens, young animals, and senior cats do not respond as strongly to catnip. Incidentally, the effect is not limited to domestic cats: big cats such as lions and jaguars also become enraptured by catnip.
Not every cat is receptive to the temptation of catnip. Some animals are not interested in the plant at all. But what is in catnip? Essential for the effects on the velvet paws is the active ingredient nepetalactone, a strong pheromone (an odor-based messenger) that shows the effect of a light opioid: depending on the dose, a sedating, anxiety-relieving, or euphoric effect.
Also important is the alkaloid actinidin, which has an antimicrobial effect and acts as a deterrent against arthropods/insects. Actinidin is also found in valerian, which has a similar appeal to cats.
Cultivating catnip as a garden plant – is that possible?
Do you want to make your cat happy and grow catnip yourself? In your own garden or on a sunny balcony, that’s no problem at all: You can get cultivated forms of catnip as perennials in well-stocked gardening shops. If you have a green thumb, you can try propagating from cuttings or seeds in the spring or fall. Since the flowers of catnip are self-pollinating and at the same time are approached by insects, abundant seed formation is guaranteed: once established outdoors, catnip spreads itself. The plant needs nutrient-rich, preferably sandy soil and a sunny location. It is forgiving of temporary drought and likes some fertilizer occasionally. But be careful: In this way, your garden may become a popular meeting place for all those who go outdoors in the neighborhood.