August 24, 2020
Cat owners respond with laughter when they see their cat’s reaction to catnip, an herb in the mint family. Their normally lazy feline rubs her nose and cheeks in the catnip, rolls around on the ground, leaps around like a kitten, and then in roughly 10 minutes falls asleep. Most cats enjoying catnip also vocalize more than usual, but not all cats are equally respondent.
Some people question the ethics of giving what appears to have the effect of a recreational drug in human use to an animal. But is it really the same? What exactly is going on when our cats act silly around this “magic” cat herb?
There are many varieties of what is commonly known as the catnip plant (Nepeta cataria and other Nepeta species). They are all members of the mint family Lamiaceae that also includes such herbs as rosemary, sage, oregano, and basil. Catnip contains tannins, volatile oils, acids, and sterols. Although not native to North America, they were imported from Europe, Asia, and Africa and are now commonly seen in herb gardens. The plants also grow widely as weeds. The volatile oil nepetalactone found in the stems and leaves of the catnip plant is the component that cats react to. It is nonaddictive and completely harmless to cats. Domestic cats as well as their wild cousins seem to love the smell.
They look high—are they? Jim Simon, a professor of plant biology and co-director of the Center for Sensory Sciences and Innovation at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, says no. The behaviors exhibited by cats when they smell catnip are those common to queens in season (females in heat.) The response to catnip is hereditary. Seventy to 80 percent of cats, both male and female, act this way when exposed to the plant. Kittens under the age of 6 months (when they reach sexual maturity), however, do not react to catnip. If it induced a high like marijuana does in humans, age would have no bearing on it.
It’s not only nepetalactone in catnip that stimulates a response, says Simon. Other compounds are similar in molecular structure, but not as strong. The odor of nepetalactone binds to receptors in their noses and the resulting behavior may appear euphoric.
According to Dr. Bruce Kornreich, an associate director for education and outreach with the Feline Health Center at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, New York, these other compounds affect neurotransmitters, “resulting in inhibition of central nervous system activity.”
A study published in Science Direct says that virtually 100% of cats respond to catnip, although the reaction in some is passive, seen in the sphinx-like posture they exhibit. Whatever their response, it’s definitely a pure pleasure for the cat that smells catnip. Check out your local Petland for a variety of fun catnip treats!