By Julia Williams
If you have a cat, you’ve probably bought them a nip toy now and then. Some kitties will lick, bite and rabbit kick the toy exuberantly while others may run around like a cat possessed. Some cats will show zero interest in catnip toys, but it has nothing to do with what the toy looks like. Some catnip is more potent than others and will elicit a stronger reaction, which may account for a cat’s interest – or lack thereof –in a particular toy. However, it’s also possible that your cat is among the 10-30% of felines who won’t respond to any catnip toy. That’s because the attraction to catnip is determined by genetics, and their reaction is hereditary. In other words, some cats are genetically programmed to respond to catnip while others are not. Most senior cats and kittens under six months typically aren’t attracted to catnip either.
Although it’s been called “wacky tobacky for cats,” catnip is not a drug. Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is an herb in the mint family, and it’s the essential oil in the blossoms, leaves and stems that are the main attractant for cats. But what you may not know is that catnip is not just for cats!
While catnip is a stimulant for cats, it’s actually a relaxant for humans, and it’s been valued for its herbal and medicinal properties for centuries. Combining one part catnip with three parts mint creates a soothing herb tea with a pleasant taste. Catnip tea can help you fall asleep, get relief from cold and flu symptoms or ease digestive upsets and tension headaches. Catnip is an excellent source of vitamin C, and like other mints can be added to salads, soups and other foods.
Recently, catnip has been found to have mosquito repelling properties too. Studies suggest that the essential oils produced by the catnip plant are ten times more effective than DEET at repelling mosquitoes, and may repel termites and cockroaches too.
Now that you know how useful catnip can be for cats and humans alike, why not try growing some in your own garden.
Catnip Growing Tips
Catnip was first brought to the United States by early colonists for use in medicinal gardens. However, the hardy perennial plants often “grew like weeds” and now catnip grows wild in many parts of the country. If you’ve ever had any type of mint in your garden, you know how easy it is grow and how it tends to take over if not kept in check. Because it's so easy to grow, catnip makes a great cash crop for small farms. Some catnip growers sell their fresh-cut nip at local Farmer’s Markets in the summer, and it reportedly sells out quickly.
You can start catnip plants from seed or purchase seedlings from a nursery. Better yet, if someone you know grows catnip they will probably happily divide their plants and give you some for free. Catnip grows best in full sun but will tolerate partial sun. It can be grown in most any soil, even poor, dry soil, but does best and is most aromatic when grown in sandy loam.
Catnip needs very little water once established and has few natural pests and diseases. However, if cats roam outdoors in your neighborhood you will need some way to deter them. I tried growing catnip plants this year and although they got off to a great start, they were subsequently mauled by catnip-happy felines and didn’t survive.
How to Make Catnip Toys
If you can wield a needle and thread, then you can easily make a little pillow catnip toy for your favorite feline. Take two small fabric squares (I use 3” squares), sew three of the edges together, stuff with catnip and stitch up the remaining edge. For another easy catnip toy you can make in under a minute, take a small scrap of fabric, place some catnip in the middle and tie a knot in the fabric. Trust me, if it has potent catnip in it, your kitty will like it just as much as any fancy schmancy store bought cat toy!
If you want to make something a little more creative, there are tons of free cat toy patterns online. I found a great pattern that includes three catnip-stuffed felt critters: a mouse, bird and fish. They’re super cute and simple to make, but I would leave off the glass beads suggested for the eyes so they’re safer for your cat.
If you knit or crochet, you can make a cat toy in about an hour. It can be as simple as two squares joined together (like the pillow toy above) or two round shapes to form a ball. You can also knit or crochet cat toy critters by searching for free patterns online.
Top photo: Purrcy in Catnip Paradise by cygnus921
Bottom photo: Gatsby the Nip Head by Anne G.
Read more articles by Julia Williams