An unusually cold, rainy April day in Tuscany. Traveling with my daughter’s eighth-grade class trip to Italy, she and I had returned to rest at the hostel, a converted monastery built in the time of Charlemagne. As I sat quietly beneath the shelter of the covered courtyard, watching the rain and communing with ghosts of ancient knights and monks, a tortoiseshell cat materialized and leapt up beside me. “Hey, I’m on vacation,” I told her. Pretending not to hear, she rubbed her face vigorously against me, then rolled flirtatiously on the table as I petted her head. About one hundred miles south of us was the little town of Nepi, known in Etruscan times as Nepete. Not much of a tourist spot, Nepete has one reputed claim to fame. It is said to be the source of the name for the plant Nepeta. Catnip.
Catnip is a perennial herb in the mint family. Like all mints, it has a square stem, opposite leaves, and “lipped” flowers shaped somewhat like an open mouth, hence the family name of Labiatae. Related to other familiar herbs like wild marjoram, sage, thyme, basil, and peppermint, catnip comes in more than 250 varieties such as Greek, Camphor, and Lemon catnip. But the one preferred by discriminating cats is Nepeta cataria, officially called “Common catnip,” though it has a host of other names including catsplay, catswort, cat’s heal all, chi hsueh tsao, field balm, catmint, catrup, nep, and nip.
Indigenous to Europe and Asia, catnip has been used medicinally in humans for at least 2,000 years. Prepared as a tea, juice, tincture, infusion, or poultice, catnip has been purported to cure upset stomach, headaches, coughing, infant colic, flatulence, insomnia, insanity, hysteria, and hemorrhoids. In the Middle Ages it was used to treat leprosy. In 1735 the Irish naturalist John K’eogh wrote “[Catnip] provokes urination and menstruation: it expels the stillborn child; it opens obstructions of the lungs and the womb, and is good for internal bruises and shortness of breath. Drunk with salt and honey, it expels worms from the body.”
Chewing the leaves was touted to relieve toothache. Mixed with saffron, it was used for smallpox. As a tea, a sedative. The root apparently has the opposite effect, if chewed, making a person “fierce and quarrelsome.” Legend has it that executioners took catnip to summon the courage to perform the duties of their job.
Let me pause to say this is all very interesting historically, but do not try it at home. The FDA lists catnip as a substance of “undefined safety.” There are more effective medications available for whatever ails you (unless you are an executioner, in which case I advise immediate career counseling).
Catnip was introduced to North America by European colonists. By 1796 it was listed as a commercial crop. It appeared in early American literature, including works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Washington Irving, and it was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1842 until 1882. Catnip grows easily. It spread across the continent and now grows wild in many places. It became briefly popular in the 1960s for its mild hallucinogenic effects and was sometimes mixed with tobacco and smoked, or used to cut marijuana.
Let me repeat. Do not try this at home. The only animals that should be enjoying catnip are, well, cats — which brings us back to veterinary medicine.Catnip contains the compound nepetalactone, which alters behavior in felines, both wild and domestic. Not all cats are susceptible to its charms. Sensitivity is a genetically inherited trait (an autosomal dominant gene for you science nerds). Kittens less than eight weeks old do not respond to catnip and may actively dislike its smell. Some reports indicate tigers also appear unaffected. Cats who do respond are so sensitive that behavior changes can be noted with air concentrations as tiny as one part per billion.
You know how a catnipped cat acts, right? They roll, rub, sniff, lick, purr, leap about, play, and generally act happy and crazy. Onset of response to olfactory exposure is almost immediate and lasts five to fifteen minutes. Then it takes one to two hours before a cat will react to it again, which explains why that catnip mouse toy loses its attractiveness so quickly. Some of the induced behavior mimics a female cat in heat and both genders exhibit mild sexual stimulation, in neutered and intact individuals alike. Ingestion (as opposed to sniffing) may provoke a different reaction including drooling, sleepiness, purring, and sometimes anxiety. In excessive amounts, or in idiosyncratic cases, catnip exposure can lead to aggressive behavior.
So is it okay to give your cat a nip? Sure, unless kitty is pregnant, prone to seizures, or has a negative reaction, no deleterious effects have been found, even with repeated use. As long as your cat doesn’t need to get to work on time or operate heavy machinery, there’s no harm in providing the recreational herb. In fact, it may be good for bored indoor cats to increase their activity.
Catnip is easy to grow. Light, sandy soil. Full sun. Like many mints, it has a tendency to take over, so plant it in a buried bucket if you don’t want it to spread. If your cat has garden access, protect the plants or kitty may destroy them in one happy splurge. Cultivating a potted plant out of reach of the cat is probably the ideal. Store harvested plants in an airtight container in a fridge or freezer or hang it upside down to dry in a well-ventilated area away from sunlight.
My Italian tortoiseshell companion was clearly pregnant. No catnip for her. But she didn’t appear to need a nip. She seemed enthusiastically high on life. Or maybe just overjoyed to have found a feline-friendly tourist with an empty lap on that rainy day. I pulled a tick out of her ear, and muttered again “Hey, I’m on vacation.” She snuggled against my chest and purred even louder.