Olfactory environmental enrichment for felines
Indoor cats get easily bored and stressed, especially in the absence of positive interaction with humans and other cats (play and chase), lack of vertical spaces, hiding places and scratchers. This leads to behavioral problems (excessive grooming, destructive behavior, aggression) and diseases (of the lower urinary tract, the upper respiratory tract, obesity ...)
We tend to forget that for them OLFACTION is practically their primary sense of perception and thus developed that it can detect volatile stimuli (odorants), hormones and pheromones, of utmost importance in cat's lives and communication between cats - which is largely governed by chemical messages. And, they are also involved in reducing anxiety, stress and help the cat feel safe.
Olfactory stimulation can increase playtime, facilitate training (as a reward rather than food), help socialize shelter cats, and possibly even facilitate CER (attract wild cats).
A recent study examined for the first time the reaction of domestic and big cats to 4 plant materials for environmental enrichment. Almost all responded positively.
A look at the different options (with videos from our cats)
... and WHERE TO GET THEM
CATNIP (nepeta cataria)
Green plant or dried form. It has an apparently euphoric effect on cats (including the big ones).
The "catnip effect" includes sniffing, licking, head shaking, rubbing the cheek against the plant or container, kicking it with their hind legs, crawling and rolling on the back, sometimes accompanied by drooling. (The study we are talking about observed another reaction, not described so far: Several cats showed skin rolling over the dorsal lumbo-sacral region of the back shortly after exposure to plant materials. This is not a sexual response, nor exclusive to catnip, with similar reactions to other plants.
It has the highest amount of nepetalactone (the other plants have only marginal levels), which is possibly the only compound that causes cats to react.
Pros & cons
Easy to get and grow. Economic.
Usually in the form of wooden sticks and toys stuffed with dry leaves.
It has the highest concentrations of all other tested compounds; half a dozen active components with a structure similar to nepetalactone (actinidine, iridomyrmezine, isodihydronepetalactone and their isomers).
Pros & cons
Fruits with galls (which cause the strongest reaction) are expensive and difficult to obtain outside Asia (their natural habitat, because their production requires the presence of the insect Pseudasphondylia matatabi). Here silver vine is sold predominantly in form of wood sticks (which do not seem as interesting).
TATARIAN honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica)
In various forms of wood, mostly slices, chips or ground.
It contains actinidine, in concentrations comparable to the galls of the matabi fruit and valerian root, being probably the only compound in this wood to which cats respond.
Pros & cons
Tatarian Honeysuckle wood is the hardest to get, but it lasts a lifetime.
Please DO NOT use wood or any part of the plant from other honeysuckle. They do not have the effect and they are TOXIC to cats.
VALERIAN (Valeriana officinalis)
Valerian root in chips or powder.
Valerian root contains Actinidine.
Pros & cons
Valerian Root: Easy to get, inexpensive - but it has a strong odor.
SENSITIVITY & RESPONSE (IN THE STUDY)
with the participation of 100 cats older than 6 months (kitten do usually not react), in their usual environment (62 from sanctuaries, 20 from a shelter, 12 from their homes and 6 in clinics).
There were no differences in positive responses between male or female neutered cats, nor with respect to the age, although the reactions of the younger were more intense.
There were also no variations in shy or frightened cats (avoiding humans and hiding), cats interested in human contact or very affectionate ones.
External (distraction) or internal factors (fear, illness) did not block a positive response.
79% of the cats responded to silver vine, more intensely than to catnip, predominantly to dried fruit with galls and some to its wood, without response to normal dried fruit or leaves).
68% to catnip (Nepeta cataria)
53% to Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica)
47% to valerian root (Valeriana officinalis)
94% responded to at least one plant. 21% of them to a single plant (65% exclusively silver vine, 3% (only) to Tatarian honeysuckle or valerian root). 24% responded to all 4 plants. And 6% to none.
Silver vine and Tartarian honeysuckle seem to be good alternatives to catnip. 71% of the cats which did not react to catnip were interested in silver vine, 32% in Tatarian honeysuckle and 19% in valerian root.
By the way, BIG CATS - 5 lynx and 9 tigers from the Big Cat Rescue Santuary had very different - and curious - reactions…
The first responded 80% positive to silver vine and 20% to catnip, one of them even holding the bag with it with his front paws next to his head, showing the typical catnip effect, for 15 minutes.
The tigers, however, were practically not interested in catnip. To silver vine reacted more tan 50%, but with displeasure, retreating.
This result has to be read carefully, because to what the cats of the study responded to so highly and strongly was the silver vine fruit with galls (tumors produced by the presence of an insect), while what we can obtain here is the wood, which seems to produce much less reaction.
Another curious fact are the answers given by 38 American and Australian veterinarians (32% of them feline vets) to the researchers: 95% had NO knowledge of alternative products to catnip.
OUR OPINION & TIPS
As you see, there are alternatives to catnip, although they depend on the sensitivity of your cat towards them and on the quality of the product.
For us very well a mix of catnip and valerian in our home-made toys. And we've realized that the fabric and shape also influence its acceptance or not. Green catnip plants also seem more attractive, although cats can destroy them in minutes.
If, making a DIY pouch you out some crackling paper / cellophane inside and sew some stips on it,
it'l be also interesting for kittens under 6 months old, despite they do (yet) not react to catnip and other. And, if they like it, the next step will be to make them a DIY olfactory mat (see instructiones)
In short, it's - like almost everything with cats - a matter of experimenting and finding what they like.
¿Where to get them?
- VALERIAN: If you'll use it to fill a toy, you can use the one that comes in a tea bags, which is what we use.
- CATNIP and SILVER VINE: Personally, we prefer the 'raw material' alone (not incorporated into toys), but there are many options, including spray. In animal products supply stores. E.g. at zooplus.
- TARTARIAN HONEYSUCKLE: We just discovered a European store (honeysucklecattoys.co.uk) - and, the ordered wood slice, but all above, little pouch with a mix of ground honeysuckle wood and premium organic catnip from the Canadien The Cat House Inc. brand was - THE HIT.