Want a good way to distract your felines from dangly ornaments on the Christmas tree? Try putting some catnip in their stockings and they'll be mighty preoccupied and purringly happy.
Catnip is a gray-green, leafy member of the mint family. This hardy, robust perennial is native to the dry regions of the Mediterranean, inland Europe, Asia, Eurasia and Africa. It was introduced in America long ago as a popular plant in herb gardens. Catnip came to the United States along with the pioneers as a vital element of their kitchen gardens, since it is useful as a medicinal tea to alleviate coughing, cold symptoms, upset stomach and to aid sleep. The plant soon escaped the confines of cultivation and naturalized throughout much of the continent. As an herb, catnip is also employed as a remedy in the treatment of tension and anxiety, and is mentioned as being a useful calmative for hyperactive children. Also listed as a mild diaphoretic, catnip can be helpful in eliminating toxins from the body. Distilled oil from catnip can be procured from an herbal apothecary, and this oil is supposed to be a very effective appetite stimulant, and has been used in the treatment of anorexia.
Catnip has a citrus-like scent and is sometimes called catmint. Bruising the leaves is what releases the powerful oils in catnip that so many cats find irresistible. Catnip is now mostly recognized for its use as a feline "aphrodisiac," although it's estimated that about 15 to 20 percent of cats don't have a response to catnip. The presence (or lack) of a response to catnip appears to be a genetic trait for cats. Since catnip triggers responses that are sex-behavior linked, kittens generally don't begin responding to catnip until they have started to sexually mature, at the age of six months. Studies have shown that the Big Cats (lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, etc.) also enjoy the effects of catnip.
It's the scent of catnip, not the consumption of it that has such a dramatic affect on cats. When cats are enjoying the plant, they do often chew the leaves, but this may be merely to release more of the scent that is in the essential oils. It's the chemical nepetalactone, a volatile oil similar in structure to the sedative ingredient found in valerian root, another well known sedative herb, that triggers the response in cats' brains. However, because human brains are physiologically different, we must be content to gain any vicarious pleasure through watching our cat's enjoyment of the herb.