Catnip: Just say yes

I’ve never done drugs a day in my life but when it comes to feline fun, I’m a drug dealer.

The way I figure, I need all my faculties to get through life. My expectations for my cats, however, are low, very low. Since I’m a vegetarian, I would rather they quit the mousing business entirely. Not only do I appreciate laziness (after all, someone’s got to do it), I promote it with an unlimited supply of kitty cannabis aka catnip.

Catnip is a member of the mint family. Historically, it’s been prescribed for more than kitty euphoric fun. It has been used to treat many human conditions including cramps, toothaches, insomnia, fevers and migraines. It has also been used to add flavor to herbal tea mixes, as a meat tenderizer and as a yellow dye. But as any feline fancier knows, the real fun starts when we give it to our catty cohorts.

Catnip leaves and stems contain high percentages of a compound called nepetalactone. Minty nepetalactone gets pests to leave its leaves alone. 70-80 percent of cats, on the other hand, find it cativating. They rub, sniff, lick, roll and chew on the plant. After exposure they may catapult themselves around and caterwauler. Basically, catnip has a mild hallucinogenic effect that’s similar to that of marijuana or LSD.

Scientists say that cats have an olfactory reaction to catnip. After exposure, your puss may exhibit the Flehmen response which looks like a grimace or smile depending on how full your glass is. By drawing air towards the roof of their mouths and directing it into their vomeronasal organs, felines can “smell-taste” scent molecules.

Even big cats like tigers, lions and leopards respond to catnip.  In fact, catnip oil has been successfully employed as an attractant in bobcat and mountain lion traps. That said, not all cats enjoy catnip. Catnip sensitivity is inherited. Australian cats, for the most part, lack the gene that makes cats keen on the nip. Kittens under 8 weeks old don’t usually respond to catnip. And, on a side note, rodents seem to be repelled by it: Darwinism at work?

As much as catnip is a turn on for your cats, it’s a turn off for cockroaches, flies and mosquitoes. Entomologist Dr. Chris Peterson noted , “Nepetalactone is about 10 time more effective than DEET.” The Iowa State University Research Foundation has obtained several patents for creating nontoxic insect repellents. One day, DEET may be obsolete

Catnip isn’t the most attractive plant in the world but it might not be such a bad idea to plant your home’s perimeter with this herb. Not only should it keep the insect population down, it may also keep rodents at bay.  If your local rat population isn’t deterred by nepetalactone, it will be by the feline block party happening at your place.

If your cat does not respond to catnip, try valerian or honeysuckle. Some products even combine honeysuckle and catnip to increase their potential to have an effect. Catnip is not considered addictive but since your cat won’t be taking the SATs anytime soon, does it really matter?

In short: Just say yes to catnip … for your cat. Unfortunately, catnip is pretty much just a sedative for humans. As for the catnip mosquito repellant — it sounds like a great idea until you consider that while you’re repelling mosquitoes on your trek, you’ll also be baiting mountain lions.

• Moksha McClure is the founder of Whiskers Resort, a pet hotel in Lihu‘e offering doggie day care, training, grooming and overnight boarding for cats and dogs for more than a decade. Visit www.WhiskersResort.com or call 241-PETS.

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