ailurophiles have marveled at the delight cats seem to get from smelling,
nibbling on, and rolling in catnip. With
the possible exception of man (i.e. eccentrics who claim to get a
“buzz” when they smoke the stuff), a behavioral response to catnip is
found only in members of the feline family.
Lions in particular demonstrate a rather spectacular response, and
hunters have used catnip to lure bobcat and lynx.
typical catnip scenario for the domestic cat initially involves the
offering of some catnip leaves, either fresh or dried.
Cats will first smell, and then lick or chew the stuff for a few
minutes. Cat owners then stand back and watch the fun begin.
Some cats show a “like, wow, man” response and just gaze off
into space, that being the extent of their reaction.
Most responders progress to rubbing their cheeks and chin in the
catnip source and act a little dizzy.
The intense responders will rub their bodies on the ground while
rolling from side to side, purring, growling, and perhaps leaping into the
air. Some cats get a little
frisky and will smack a fellow housemate kitty on the head. Reactions
vary, although most cats experience both a relaxing and a stimulating
effect. The complete response lasts for five to fifteen minutes, with a
type of satiation developing so that a response cannot be evoked again for
at least an hour or two. Approximately
30% of adult cats show zero or minimal response to the plant, and nearly
all kittens under 2 months of age show no reaction to catnip and often
actively avoid it. Males and females respond equally. Whether a cat is a
responder or not is based on heredity; a recessive gene is involved, so
that two cats from the same litter may have different responses to the
what exactly is this stuff? Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a member of the mint
family. It is related to
common kitchen herbs like thyme and sage, and can be easily cultivated as
a houseplant. When the plant
is crushed and the oils are distilled, catnip extract is obtained.
Studies have shown the active ingredient in the oil is
nepetalactone. It is the
smell of this oil that triggers the response.
Anesthetizing the nasal passages and obliterating the sense of
smell in a cat will abolish the catnip reaction.
catnip produces the response that it does is not fully understood, but
there are several possible explanations.
There is an unmistakable similarity between the catnip response and
the rolling and squirming of female cats during courtship and just after
copulation, leading some investigators to conclude that catnip activates a
neural system in the brain related to female sexual behavior.
Another school of thought is that catnip produces a form of
pleasurable behavior unrelated to sexuality, and that the rolling and
rubbing is simply a manifestation of a pleasure response.
In 1972, Canadian researcher R.C. Hatch reported in the American
Journal of Veterinary Research that the chemical structure of the active
ingredient in catnip is very similar to that of LSD, leading to
speculation that the bliss that cats seem to experience is similar to the
reaction humans experience to these drugs.
owners who worry about whether they may be indulging their cat too
frequently should be told that, like anything special, it should be
offered for a little while, then put away for a few days, so that it
remains a special treat. Catnip
is safe and not addictive, however, because of the altered mental state
that it induces in most cats, customers should be warned that they should
avoid letting their cat drive the car or operate heavy machinery while
under the influence.