May 2009 Issue

The Pleasures (and Perils) of Catnip

Here's why your cat does (or doesn't) react to this interesting and hardy perennial.

Planters of catnip, beware! This perennial is a member of the mint family, like spearmint and oregano, and it reproduces by spreading runners beneath the soil Put one catnip plant in your garden and in five years it may well have taken over. Veteran gardeners plant catnip in buried containers, or in above-ground pots that even the hardiest and most aggressive roots canít escape. Despite the voracious nature of the plant, itís worth having around. Carolyn McDaniel, VMD, a consultant at the Feline Health Center at Cornell Universityís College of Veterinary Medicine, says, "Catnip is non-toxic, non-addicting, and low calorie Ö I think catnip can be a valuable part of an indoor catís environmental enrichment." The entire catnip plant ó stem, leaf and seed ó is covered with microscopic bulbs that contain nepetalactone. When these bulbs (at the end of sharp hairs called trichomes) reach maturity, they burst, releasing the oil, which then vaporizes upon exposure to air. Just like poison ivy, brushing against the leaves bruises them enough to release the oil from the trichomes, which is why you might see your cat leaning into the catnip. The oil can also be released by insects chewing on the leaves ó or by a cat doing the same.

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