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Catnip and Cannabis – Reefer Meow-ness?

Apr 16, 2013 by     3 Comments    Posted under: Tips & Advice

All the cool cats were smoking the illicit weed during the early days of jazz in the 1920s on the streets of New York City.  In fact, years later, when I was living in Greenwich Village in the 1980s, things hadn’t changed much at all.  The aroma of that fragrant herb would frequently waft up from the street through the open windows of my 4th floor apartment, strangely reminiscent of…catnip!

Have you ever wondered why cats get so crazy over catnip?  What is it about that herb?

Catnip was originally imported from the Mediterranean, where this member of the mint family grew like a …uh, weed…along the rocky coastline.  The plant’s leaves, stems and flowers are enormously attractive to most cats, including lions, tigers and panthers.  Many of our housecats also love indulging in this lemony, potent mint.

Catnip, which is also known as catmint, is a cousin of basil and oregano.  Even its Latin name, cataria, means “of the cat.”  The allure is from the volatile oils contained in the seeds, leaves and stems, specifically from one chemical in those oils: trans- nepetalactone.  This chemical is very similar to the odor of a female cat in heat, which is why male tomcats are reported to be most affected by the oils.

Genetics determine whether your cat will be intoxicated by this herb and enter that wacky, dreamlike trance.  About 50% of cats inherit sensitivity to the effects of catnip, and all kittens are completely impervious to its effects until they reach about 3 months of age.

Catnip appears to be a dis-inhibitor, which means that a cat’s natural tendencies toward aggression, playfulness or craziness will get magnified.  Some cats will become mellow and calm, and reach a kind of drug high very reminiscent to what happens to humans under the influence of a certain related herb.  Catnip oils induce a narcotic, hallucinogenic state in susceptible cats, as a result of what appears to be stimulation to the cat’s phermonic receptor.

We know cats have an intensely sensitive olfactory system and love to scent-mark and brand their territory through smells.  Catnip seems to enhance that sensation and mimic what happens during a surge of feline pheromones, which are natural compounds that cats use to enhance social communication among individuals.

Cats who are affected by catnip only maintain that bliss state for roughly 10 minutes, and that “high” is triggered by exposure to oils through rolling on the leaves, and licking, chewing and eating the plant.  Once that state is completed, most cats need about two hours to “reset” before they can experience catnip’s hallucinogenic effect again.

Because the trigger is found in the oils of the plant, fresh catnip is most potent, but when the dried herb is tightly-sealed, it can also be appealing.  Interestingly, the herb valerian is a close chemical equivalent to catnip, and will induce a similar response in genetically-susceptible cats.  This herb is commonly found in homeopathic relaxation and anti-stress remedies.

Cats enjoy catnip so much that it’s a relief to know that it is not addictive at all, and it doesn’t appear to be any sort of “gateway” drug that might produce a chronic feline drug offender.  And haven’t you always wondered what catnip might do to people?  After all, cats look so happy when they’re caught up in the ecstasy of the herb!

One of the veterinarians I worked with in a New York City cat practice also was curious.  He told me he raided his cat’s stash one night after work and put some in his pipe and…well, he wasn’t too successful in channeling his feline friends.  He said the end result was a bad taste and one serious headache!

Dr Cathy Lund

Cathy Lund, DVM, owns and operates City Kitty Veterinary Care for Cats, a cat practice located in Providence, RI. She is also the board president and founder of the Companion Animal Foundation, a statewide, veterinary-based nonprofit organization that helps low-income pet owners afford essential veterinary care. She lives in Providence, and serves on several architectural and preservation commissions in the city, and is on the board of directors of WRNI, RI’s own NPR station. But her favorite activity is to promote the countless virtues of the “purr-fect” pet, the cat!

City Kitty
18 Imperial Pl # 1B
Providence, RI 02903-4642

Phone: (401) 831-6369
Email: email@city-kitty.com

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