Your Cat Wants You to Grow Catnip--and Not Just So He Can Get High

Claire Splan

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The fact that cats love catnip is not news. It has long been known that catnip contains an organic compound called nepetalactol, an iridoid that is known to attract felines and trigger pleasure receptors in the feline brain.

In other words, catnip is a recreational drug for cats.

But there is now research available that indicates there is a health and safety reason to provide your cat with catnip—it appears to act as a mosquito repellent for cats. In studies, a group of cats' heads were smeared with the iridoid and then they and a control group of untreated cats were exposed to mosquitoes. The blood-sucking insects attacked the untreated cats and left the iridoid-treated cats alone.

Since cats can contract deadly heartworm infections as well as the less-serious West Nile Virus through mosquito bites, this is information that can potentially save your cat’s life. Simply including catnip in your garden can provide your cat and other neighborhood cats with some natural protection from these diseases.

Best of all, catnip is easy to grow, providing your pet with an inexpensive and ready source of both insect repellent and high times.

Growing catnip

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a herbaceous perennial, meaning that it will die back to the roots in the winter, but re-sprout from the same root system in the spring. It requires full sun (six hours a day minimum) and well-draining soil.

Sow seeds outdoors in the spring or plant container-grown plants in the spring or fall. Be patient—seeds can take up to three weeks to germinate. Once sprouted, they will grow into mounded plants between 12 and 18 inches high.

Although catnip tends to be a hardy plant that will grow in almost any soil, it does best when fed every couple weeks with a weak organic fertilizer. With regular feeding, it’ll be better able to withstand the constant nibbling that it’ll have to endure.

Catnip develops flower spikes in shades of white, pink, or lavender that are also appealing to butterflies and other pollinators. When those flowers fade, just cut them back and the plant will rebloom. Leave the foliage intact until it starts to yellow and cut the plant back to the ground. Leave the roots to rest in the ground and they will resprout in the spring.

Several companies offer catnip seeds for sale. My favorites include Burpee, Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, Seeds of Change, and Botanical Interests.

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Writer/editor. Author of "California Fruit & Vegetable Gardening" and "California Month-by-Month Gardening."

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