Catnip, Catmint, Cat Thymne, Valerian, and Cat's Medicine

by Joelle Steele

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Your sunny kitchen window is just the place to start a garden for your cats! Catnip, catmint, cat thyme, and valerian are herbs your cats can enjoy which are easy to grow indoors or out.


Catnip and catmint, (Nepeta cataria and Nepeta mussini respectively), are both members of the mint family Labiatae and both herbs can be referred to as catnip. These hardy perennials with silvery leaves and purple and white flowers have a 2,000 year old history of medicinal use dating back to ancient China, and are probably best known by cat lovers as the key ingredient in all the best cat toys. Both plants contain nepetalactone, a chemical sedative which causes a non-addictive euphoric reaction in cats and has a mild tranquilizing effect on humans. However, contrary to popular belief, not all cats react to the catnip aroma in a euphoric manner. In fact, some are not interested in the herb at all and experts seem to feel that the euphoric reaction may be a genetic trait. Those cats who are drawn to these herbs may inhale it or eat it. When ingested by cats or humans, catnip offers a tranquilizing effect on the digestive system.


Other species of Nepeta such as Nepeta hederacea ("cat's foot" or "cat's paw") can be somewhat attractive to some cats but not to others, much like catnip. This herb resembles other members of the mint family with its hairy leaves and its blue and lavender flowers and can be grown indoors in a sunny window. But, cat's foot should not be ingested by cats or humans as in large quantities it can be toxic.


Cat thyme (Teucrium marum) is a type of germander which belongs to the mint family Labiatae along with its cousins, the culinary herb thyme (Thymus vulgaris), and the Nepetas: catnip, catmint, and cat's foot. Like its catnip cousins, it has a very long history of medicinal use and was often used as a digestive tonic and as a mild sedative, though its real claim to fame was as a cure for gout and rheumatism. Cats tend to enjoy the plant before it is dried out and a particularly susceptible feline may decide to do some gardening of her own and dig up the plant in order to roll around in it.


Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is another hardy perennial, this one with fernlike leaves resembling those of a daisy. It also has tiny pink, lavender, or white flowers and is a member of the plant family Valerianaceae. Valerian has been in use medicinally at least as long as catnip. The first known references to it appeared in ancient Greek and Roman writings in which it was called "fu." In today's Germany, it is the active ingredient in over 100 over-the-counter sedatives and tranquilizers. Valerian contains a chemical called methyl ketone, a mild anesthetic and tranquilizer, and it also contains valepotriates which are very similar in action to the nepetalactone chemical in catnip. It also contains a chemical called actinidine which is also found in a Japanese herb, Actinidia kolomikita, known commonly in Japan as "cats medicine" because of its euphoric catnip-like effect on cats. Unlike catnip, valerian has a very unpleasant musky odor when dried and put to use as a cat toy. Cats don't seem to mind the smell and even appear to find it very attractive. Like cat thyme, they also like to roll around in valerian it while it is still growing in the ground.


All of these herbs enjoy a sunny window, planted in pots with good drainage. Don't let them sit in water for more than twelve hours at a time as the roots are likely to rot. They should all be pinched back regularly to keep them from getting leggy. Once they are in bloom, they have technically "gone to seed" and may not regenerate unless you remove the dead flowers and then prune the plant back right after it has stopped flowering altogether.

For the most part, your cats will probably not bother these plants as long as you, or they, don't accidentally bruise the leaves and release the plant's aromatic oils. If you have a cat who likes to sit on your window ledges or who is particularly fascinated with these plants, it might be a good idea to anchor the herbs in heavy pots and cover them with some lightweight chicken wire while they are still small. The plant will grow through the chicken wire and cover it up somewhat and your cat will not be able to uproot it as easily.


When you're ready to harvest your herbs for your cat, just snip off a few branches and hang them upside down and out of reach for a couple weeks. Once they're dry, you can crush them and sew them up into a cat toy. A pair of child's socks, especially bright colored ones in red, blue, or yellow, can be easily converted into a toy by filling one of them half-way up with catnip, folding the excess material over it, and then putting that sock inside the other one and sewing it closed.

This article last updated: 08/23/2009.

The articles on this Web site are informational only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice or treatment. Cats are not "one size fits all." They are different in terms of breed, age, health, lifestyle, and tolerance for different foods and other substances.