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Cats crazy for catnip

Posted: Sunday, May 18, 2003

So, what's the deal with catnip?

Your usually calm, cool and collected kitty becomes an uncouth, undignified, out-of-control cat when exposed to it. Most cats go daffy for the stuff. But why? What's it do and is it safe?

Well, here's the spicy tale on the aromatic herb.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a member of the mint family. Although indigenous to North Africa and the Mediterranean, it now grows wild in many regions throughout North America.

The origins of catnip are lost to history, but it has been speculated that it was used as early as 2500 B.C. by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, the area known today as Iraq.

The chemical compound called nepetalactone is the primary active ingredient in catnip and is believed to be responsible for eliciting the crazy reaction from cats. Scientists believe the physiological reactions of catnip are harmless, even when the herb is ingested.

There is still some dispute as to what type of reaction is triggered by catnip, but most authorities agree it has a psychosexual response in both male and female cats. This means the herb is essentially a type of aphrodisiac.

Wendy Reddick frequently gives catnip to her feline friend named Kit-Kat.

"He really likes it," she said. "It makes him a lot more lovey."

As many as 70 to 90 percent of domestic cats will exhibit a reaction to catnip. The response is inherited and the degree of response can very from mildly stimulated to completely wacky.

Also, most cats don't respond to catnip until they are older than six months.

Responses to catnip can be displayed in a variety of ways. Most cats will roll in it and meow frequently. Some drool profusely. Others will rub their cheeks on the spot it has been sprinkled while holding it with their paws.

Some may get into silly positions such as on their backs with paws extended, looking up at the ceiling. Some will assume a sleepy pose and lay still, while yet others run around the room as if interacting with an invisible partner.

Reddick said her cat's reaction isn't as outrageous as some.

"He sniffs it and gets playful. He'll run around. He's not real crazy, though, because he's older," she said.

Catnip can be administered in many ways and a little bit can go a long way. Just a pinch or two will usually be enough to change a cat's behavior.

It can be sprinkled in the cat's bed or favorite resting spot. It can be rubbed on its scratching post. Toys and socks can also be stuffed with catnip. Although safe if swallowed, it should not be put in your cat's food.

Crushing the buds between your fingers before sprinkling it can make it even more potent, especially if the herb has been sitting around for a while. Even old catnip is still good, and most cats can react to concentrations as low as one part per billion.

Response times can vary but most cats seem to respond for at least 5 to 15 minutes. After that it starts to lose its zing. Even the most enthusiastic cats will rarely continue to be stimulated after an hour.

Keep in mind that too much exposure will cause a cat to lose interest. For the maximum effect it is better to only use catnip every couple of days. Put it in a few toys and locations rather than sprinkling it everywhere.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conser-vation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at clarion@alaska.net.



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