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This Side of Purradise
by Iris Bass
The Happiness Plant
Years before a nearby Great Barrington cannabis shop opened, Purradise has maintained the garden bed just below its front windows with catnip, as a nod to that longtime feline mood lifter.
True catnip (Nepeta cataria), a.k.a. catmint, has been known for centuries for its ability to provoke giddiness in cats. When its scent is inhaled (including when cats nibble on its leaves) a substance unique to this herb, nepetalactone, acts upon the vomeronasal organ—a little nub located between cats’ hard palate and nasal passages. You may know that pheromones can produce calm or pleasure in cats; their natural release during cats’ mating cycle creates attraction between the toms and queens. Pheromone-like catnip, while having nothing to do with sex, botanically arouses many felines to a similar state of bliss all on its own.
Depending on their genes, not all cats react to this herb; some may go wild over the fresh plant, others, only if it is dried (see box). It is not recommended for kittens, any more than (pace SNL), alcohol should be given to children; also, some cats stop responding to it with age. But generally, just the tiniest pinch can give many a cat an entirely harmless “high.”
Watch closely to catch how it starts: if Kitty’s facial expression becomes a kind of open-jawed grin, you are seeing the vomeronasal organ in action—this is called the Flehman response—drawing in more air to better appreciate the herb’s chemistry.
What happens from there depends on the cat. A frequent response is to roll or wriggle around in ecstasy; another, if a catnip-filled toy sparks the interest, to rub and chew on the item to better release the scent. I recently tried strewing a pinch on a carpet for my two senior male cats to enjoy, after their not having had catnip for quite a while. That little bit had an unexpected effect: they became so excited that they simultaneously bolted for their litter boxes! (I’m not trying that again!) But generally speaking, cats will enjoy themselves for a while, move on to other places and other things once the peak of sensation has been enjoyed—and often remember to come back to that place or object later for another fix. Indeed, I have found that washing a catnip toy (use just a little soap, such as dishwashing liquid, and rinse well) does not reduce a cat’s association of it with catnip; perhaps the scent lingers, or simply the reminiscence of bliss itself becomes bliss!
The promise of catnip can also serve as, frankly, a bribe. In my household, this comes in handy when I need to comb Zerbi, my petite, Purradise adoptee Maine Coon (pictured), whose long, silky fur mats easily. The deal for years is that she will get a pinch of catnip (sprinkled on a rug) only if she submits to being combed. Her sister knows the drill and at even my mention of combing Zerbi is already at the rug, squealing excitedly in anticipation. For days afterward, they both continue to visit the carpet, sniffing it and rolling on it to prolong every possible satisfying whiff.
Catnip is a member of the mint family (cats may also enjoy the smell of mint, though it does not have the same hallucinogenic effect) and is very easy to grow from potted seedlings available at garden centers and supermarkets. Be sure to read the label to ensure it has the correct Latin name. To dry it, snip sprigs and hang then upside down in an airy, dry, dark area until crisp, or separate the leaves, spread them on a baking sheet, preheat the oven to its lowest temperature, turn off the heat, and let the leaves dry in the warm oven until they are crisp (they will not keep well if damp). Store in an airtight container. For a simple catnip toy, add a teaspoonful to the toe area of a baby’s cotton sock, tie a firm knot in the rest of sock to hold it in…and toss to Kitty!
Iris Bass, coauthor of the Cat Lover’s Daily Companion, shares her Lee home with five shelter cats. Her articles follow the special human-feline bond at Purradise, the Berkshire Humane Society Cat Adoption Center located in Great Barrington, MA. For adoptions, please contact Berkshire Humane Society (located in Pittsfield, MA) directly at (413) 447-7878 or check out its website at https//:berkshirehumane.org