Catnip and cats- good and good for them

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

Cats are very attached to where they live and how they live in those spaces greatly affects their well being or welfare. Making the environment more cat friendly includes making sure there are scratch posts, hiding spaces, cat beds, raised resting spaces, people or other cats for social interaction and yes, cat nip. We already know that most cats love catnip even if we are not sure about how good it is for them. Cats just seem to like it a little too, too much and that must make it wrong- right? Get ready to relax about catnip veterinary colleges and veterinarians, like the vet school at Texas A&M and VetStreet's Dr. Marty Becker confirm the plant is non toxic to cats and can actually benefit them. Adding catnip to the list of effective improvements or “enrichments” to our cat’s living space makes for happier cats and happier cats are healthier cats.

While the leaves and the flowers of the catnip plant may be the most well known, it’s not the only plant that cats are in love with. Silver vine fruit, Tatarian honeysuckle wood and Valerian root are also cat attractants.

To test which plant had the biggest impact on kitty, a recent study looked at 100 cats in home and shelters along with 14 big cats (bob cats and tigers) and their responses to each one. The scientists were looking for the “cat nip response” (yes, there is term for that, take a look) defined as: “sniffing, licking, shaking their head, rubbing (chin/cheek) and rolling on their back, sometimes accompanied by drooling and raking,” (“raking’ is kicking with the back legs or “bunny kicking”), how intense it was – sniffing and licking only or sniffing, licking, rubbing or rolling over and how long it lasted – less than 10 seconds? More than 15 seconds? Of the 100 domestic cats studied, 79 of them responded positive to the silver vine, 68 to catnip, 53 to Tatarian honeysuckle and 47 to valerian root. While the response to silver vine (79%) was close to the response to cat nip (68%) the response of the cats to the silver vine was significantly more intense. When just looking at the differences between how older and younger cats responded to cat nip, the researchers found less mild and more intense responses in younger cats compared to the older cats. What about the big cats? Tigers are known to be less caring than other cats about scent enrichments and true to form, only one out of nine tigers responded positively to cat nip and all tigers either ignored or disapproved of the silver vine. Five bobcats were tested with 4 responding positively to silver vine and 1 to catnip, the bobcat’s response was among the most intense seen lasting from several to 15 minutes..

Use the power of catnip for the good of your cat- rub it into scratching posts to heighten their appeal, sprinkle in a corner of their beds or resting areas (catnip is also available as a spray), fill a clean sock with dried catnip and tie it off for the best cat nip toy. Try growing some for kitty to enjoy, cat nip is a member of the mint family and easily grows from seeds. But do use catnip for the simple reason that most cats love it and that is a good enough reason.

For those of us, myself included, who are interested in the other plants cats love you can find powdered valerian root in drug stores where it is sold for its tranquilizing properties (catnip is said to have a similar effect for humans). I also like rubbing this powder onto cat furniture as well, it's less gritty than catnip and its appeal might offset some stress in multi cat households. Tatarian honeysuckle is considered an invasive species in many states (including mine) so it may be difficult to obtain. The part of the silver vine that the cats are attracted to is the fruit of the plant after the gall midge has matured and moved out of it. Gall midges are only found in certain areas of Asia but powdered silver vine galls can be found online and were used in the study.

Bol, S., J. Caspers, L. Buckingham, G.D. Anderson-Shelton, C. Ridgway, C.A. Tony Buffington, S. Schulz, E. M. Bunnik, (2017) Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidaia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and catnip (Nepeta cataria). BMC Veterinary Research, 13:70

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