Catnip isn’t just for cats: humans love it too!

Catnip is a member of the mint family and can be grown right here in Alberta. The ingredient that makes cats go cuckoo for the herb is nepetalactone.

Catnip is a member of the mint family and can be grown right here in Alberta. The ingredient that makes cats go cuckoo for the herb is nepetalactone.

By Pamela Porosky

Donna DeLorme lives with two eight-year-old cats in her Calgary, AB, apartment. Both Pepper and Pita seemed to like catnip in the beginning, even “playing like crazy” when they first got it. “They rolled around in it and sniffed it out, but then they didn’t care.”

She mainly tried it in toy form, but also tried sprinkling it on the floor — both store-bought and home-grown catnip. “I even got a catnip dispenser, but they never used it, so I stopped offering,” says Donna.

When it comes to her own use, however, she finds it extremely beneficial. “I was really surprised to see it was catnip,” she says of the main ingredient listed in the relaxing tea blend she purchased at a local supermarket.

“I thought it was something that only made cats hyper,” Donna says. “But I would say it works the best out of any relaxing kind of teas in terms of actually helping. I feel tired and yawn when I drink it. It is way more effective than valerian root (a much more common herbal sleep aid).”

As it turns out, people have been utilizing the healing properties of catnip for hundreds of years. First cultivated by the ancient Greeks to entertain their cats, it was then introduced to the rest of Europe. By the middle ages, it was used to season food, as a tasty tea that soothed stomach upset, and even a natural insect repellant.

According to the Royal Horticultural Society’s “Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses” by Deni Bown, catnip “lowers fever, relaxes spasms, increases perspiration and has a sedative effect.” It can also be used to alleviate “insomnia, excitability, palpitations, nervous indigestion, diarrhea, stomach upset and colic.”

A member of the mint family, catnip – also known as catmint, catwort and cat’s play — is most beneficial when ingested. However, when cats inhale the essential oils released by rubbing or chewing the stems and leaves, the results can be more than interesting.

According to Christine Campbell, B.Sc., BIT, Dipl. Animal Sciences, cats are attracted to a component of an oil produced by bruised or dried catnip plants called nepetalactone.

“The chemical enters the cat’s nose, where it binds to an olfactory protein receptor in the olfactory epithelium. Once the nepetalactone binds, the receptor changes shape, causing a response in the olfactory bulb neurons and sending a message to the brain, including the amygdala and the hypothalamus. The amygdala is responsible for the behavioural responses, while the hypothalamus stimulates a neuroendocrine response similar to the reaction to sexual pheromones,” Campbell explains, adding “Many domestic cats and their wild counterparts, including lynx, cougars, tigers, lions, and ocelots display euphoric symptoms when exposed to catnip. “Other animals do not have the same olfactory receptors, and therefore are usually unaffected by nepetalactone.”

Calgarian Nancy Pollard lives with six cats, ranging from age six to 12, and every single one of them loves the herb. “They all react differently,” Pollard explains. “Edweirdo sits and eats it. Uly and Roscoe roll in it, get covered and carry it all over the house. Sydnie rolls in it, too, but doesn’t go anywhere. Eddy is the only one who eats it.”

George prefers to go right to the source, often slipping into Pollard’s backyard garden where she grows her own plants: “He lays down right beside it and eats little wee pieces off it and rubs his head against it. He flattens it now and again, but he never breaks it. He just rolls on top of it for a good 10 minutes, then gets up and licks the oils off.”

Pollard started growing her own catnip six years ago and prefers knowing that it is fresh and pesticide-free. And even though she has been gardening for over 30 years and has worked at garden centres during much of that time, she insists it’s easy enough that anyone can grow this useful herb for their own cats and themselves, whether you have a garden or a small window sill.

“It likes partial sunlight and lots of water,” she says, noting the hardy perennial can survive in clay-like soil with little moisture. “But try not to let it dry out because the leaves will dry out. You can still use it, but it won’t be as fresh.”

She recommends keeping it in a confined area when outdoors (because it will spread) and putting chicken wire around it when your own cats aren’t enjoying it, especially if you don’t want other cats in the neighbourhood getting at it.

Throughout the spring and summer, Pollard takes the leaves off of the catnip plant as she needs it. “In the fall, I cut it down and dry it for use all winter.”

She also suggests purchasing the correct type, as there are 250 species of catnip, with nepeta cateria, or “true catnip,” having the most significant euphoric effect on our feline friends, and the greatest medicinal value to humans and other mammals.