Column: Catnip: Tabby’s drug of choice

Published 6:21 pm Thursday, February 2, 2006

By Staff
Last summer, the wife and I were cruising the back roads as we often do looking for native prairie plants for potential seed collecting. We were west of Edwardsburg in what a century and a half ago was an area called Beard's Prairie. Along the roadside I spotted a plant I wasn't familiar with. It had all the earmarks of being in the mint family, square stem, mint-like leaves and tiny white flowers covering spiky stalks.
The wife isn't much into wildflowers, but she's pretty skookum about garden plants and their accompanying weeds. When I excitedly showed her my new find she said, “Oh, that's just catnip. I weed that junk out of the garden all the time.”
Not being a cat person I'd never given catnip any thought. I must have assumed it just grew inside cat toys sort of like mold. I remember as a kid how mom's cat went nuts over a catnip-stuffed toy. He'd sniff in deep breaths of the apparently marvelous odor, roll on it, rub it with his head and generally act goofier than a pet coon. Recently, I had some spare time and decided to look into this catnip phenomenon.
I was right, catnip is in the mint family. In fact, another common name for it is cat mint. It is native to Asia and Eastern Europe but it was one of the more prized herbs used for both food and medicine and, wherever early man went, he took catnip with him.
It spread right along with civilization. The Egyptians, being cat worshipers, were especially into catnip. Early settlers brought catnip with them to the New World where it eventually spread throughout much of the U.S. portion of North America. Apparently, this is the area with the most suitable growing conditions. Now, as the wife pointed out, to most of us it's just an obnoxious alien weed.
Catnip apparently does have many endearing qualities for humans, although quite different than for cats. Before the days of grocery store seasonings catnip was used to flavor sauces, soups and stews and brewed up as tea. During the Middle Ages it was used to treat everything from mental illness to colds and gastrointestinal complaints. Those into herbal remedies still swear by it to calm nervous disorder and treat nausea and diarrhea. It's also reported crushed catnip leaves applied to an aching tooth or gums relieves the pain almost instantly (so does whacking yourself on the toe with a hammer, by the way).
The real thrust of my curiosity, though, was the effect it had on cats. It evokes equal response to all members of the cat family from house cats to cougars, leopards, lions and tigers, but not with every cat. Only about two thirds of cats go bonkers. The rest ignore it or even go out of their way to avoid it. Also, few kittens show any interest in catnip. If it's going to, the response develops at around three months of age. It's believed a cat's penchant for catnip or lack thereof is hereditary.
So why does catnip get cats so wound up? It's a chemical compound in the stems and leaves called nepetalactone. To cats this is a behavior-modifying drug that, ironically, is chemically similar to certain drugs that are euphoric and hallucinogenic to humans (it has little such effect on humans). Since we haven't bridged the communication gap we don't know for sure just where a cat goes on this stuff but apparently it's quite a trip. It's the ultimate cat recreational drug, for when sniffed it's an upper. When the cat's ready to come down from the high (usually about six minutes) he can ingest it and then it works as a sedative downer. Best of all, it's harmless and non-addictive.
Here you've been misreading your cat all this time. You thought when Tabby went out at night it was to stir up a good back-alley brawl and then unwind with a little whoopee.
Now you know he's really roaming the neighborhood saying, “Hey dudes, let's go hang out in the garden and do some weed.” Carpe diem.