CRAZY FOR CATNIP
What is catnip and how does it work? We explain this enigmatic herb and how it works its magic on cats
Some cats can’t get enough catnip while others couldn’t care less—even the laziest fat cat can turn into a maniac furball with one whiff, yet another cat remains unaffected. What’s at work here? While it’s undeniably fun to watch a cat rolling and rubbing in catnip and doing back flips for about 10 minutes before coming back to earth, what exactly is catnip and what is it doing to your cat?
What catnip is—and isn’t
Catnip is another name for the herb Nepeta cataria, a relative of oregano and spearmint. An active molecule in it is believed to mimic a cat pheromone. This molecule (called Nepetalactone) binds to a cat’s olfactory receptors to produce catnip’s euphoric results. This is why if catnip is ingested your cat mellows out, but sniffing the stuff, they go bonkers—the most intense catnip experience starts at the nose. Although your cat may look and act stoned, catnip is not a drug and it isn’t addictive.
How it Works
Genetics determine whether your feline falls for the herb. The response is hereditary, with about 70–80 percent of cats exhibiting behaviours such as rubbing their heads and body on the herb, salivating, jumping around, and vocalizing. These cats are reacting to the Nepetalactone, the chemical compound found in catnip’s leaves and stems. Nepetalactone is believed to target feline “happy” receptors in the brain, producing a “high.” What’s at work here is your cat is essentially reacting to an artificial cat pheromone that triggers something akin to a sexual response. This is why kittens don’t respond to catnip until they are about six months old and begin to reach sexual maturity.
Is it safe? How long does it last?
Yes, catnip is safe and cats definitely seem to love the blissed out state, making it a great enrichment tool for the home environment. Its results are temporary, causing about 10 minutes of euphoria, after which cats will be immune to its effects for about 30 minutes to two hours. Results among cats that respond to the herb will also vary from euphoria to calm mellowness to aggressive playfulness. All are normal responses.