Catnip from magic to medicine

2015-11-19 06:00

THE curious attraction of the domestic cat to the herb Catnip, Nepeta cataria, has been recognised for hundreds of years. Practitioners of the ancient arts, both black and white, whether in the cause of love or hate, health or illness, wealth or indigence, have used the feline’s surrender to the herb in order to lure her to their purpose.

The Conjuror’s Journal of 1791, in the spirit of the age, advises: “In the new moon, gather the herb nepe, and dry it in the heat of the sun when it is temperately hot; gather vervain in the hour of Mercury and expose it to the air only while the sun is under the Earth.

“Hang these together in a net in a convenient place, and when a cat has scented it, her cry will soon call those about her that are within hearing, and they will rant and run about, leaping and catering to get at the net, which must be hung or placed so that they cannot easily accomplish it, for they will nearly tear it to pieces.”

We now know that the magical properties of catnip and valerian are in fact a feline reaction to a chemical, trans-nepetalactone, which both herbs contain. The “magic” in this is that it is a close relative of the compound secreted in the urine of the female cat while on heat.

It is also found in the wood of a species of honeysuckle, Lonicera tatarica, and so it is hardly surprising that shavings of this wood are used in a number of commercial cat toys.

Cats respond to catnip by mimicking behaviour typically displayed by a queen in oestrus. Interestingly, this is not only a female reaction. Male cats react with the same rubbing, rolling, and other antics when exposed to the herb.

On discovery of this pheromonally attractive plant, the cat will typically start investigating, rubbing, sniffing, licking and chewing it, in this way absorbing nepetalactone and activating the opioid receptors of the pleasure centres.

This induces the state of rapture in which we may observe chin and neck rubbing, rolling about, swooning contortions and vocalisation. These behaviours last between five to twenty minutes, after which olfactory fatigue sets in. Cats reactions to the herb mimic the human reaction to marijuana.

Evidence indicates that nepetalactone does have an opium-like action as it stimulates certain types of opioid receptors in the cat’s brain, as morphine does too.

Some people disapprove of the use of catnip.

However, it has been shown to be quite safe and non-addictive as a recreational drug for cats – unlike, for example, cigarette or alcohol consumption by humans.

Kittens less than about eight weeks of age will not respond to catnip (in fact they seem rather to avoid it) and the full behavioural reaction will only be evident after around three months.

The response may sometimes be negated or reduced by old age. Generally between 50% and 70% of cats respond to catnip. But cats whose ancestors originate in parts of the world where catnip is not indigenous, such as south-east Asia, typically have not inherited the responsive gene, the autosomal dominant trait. Most cats in Australia, for instance, are unresponsive, being from a close genetic pool partly attributable to import quarantine restrictions, although this may change as more pedigrees are imported from Europe and the U.S.

Catnip is not just a recreation drug for cats, it may be used to good effect in encouraging feuding cats to see one another through more amiable eyes. It may be rubbed onto the cat or cats for these purposes.

It may also be beneficial in reducing a fear of car rides and visits to the vet. It may also be useful in encouraging the use of a scratching post in preference to the furniture or carpets. It also has mild analgesic properties that may be helpful if a cat is in some moderate pain.

Cats respond to the herb in minute portions, so very little need be used. As a herb, catnip will lose its efficacy in time. Freezing will keep it fresh.

The nepetalactone is photosensitive, so a dark container is best for storage.

The attractions of catnip are not confined to our domestic cats. The big cats generally respond in the same way. Although it has a stimulating effect on felines, it has a calming effect on dogs and humans.

In olden times it was used for treating insomnia and stomach upsets, particularly when considered to be stress-induced. Although catnip tea is generally regarded as safe, traditional use as a uterine stimulant may suggest that it best be avoided by pregnant women.

The famous English herbalist Culpeper’s Complete Herbal of 1826 has it that, among its many properties, “the green herb bruised and applied to the fundament, easeth the pains of piles”, while the renowned English physician Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689), best remembered for discovering the disease now known as St Vitus Dance, recommended catnip for its efficacy in treating “nervous headaches, hysteria and insanity”, issuing a warning that “if the root be chewed it will make the most quiet person fierce and quarrelsome.”

- Susan Henderson.

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