The Purr-fect High. What Catnip Really Does to Your Cat

Catnip is a plant from the mint family that has psychoactive effects on many domestic cats. When cats inhale or eat catnip, the nepetalactone compounds in the plant bind to receptors in the cat’s brain and produce a range of reactions, from extreme excitement and stimulation, to relaxation and sedation. The stimulant effect causes cats to actively play, vocalize, roll around, and rub against the catnip source. The sedative effect causes cats to seem relaxed and calm. Catnip essentially produces an euphoric-like high for cats that typically lasts between 5-15 minutes, before wearing off. Only about 50-70% of cats are affected by catnip.

Chemical Composition

The chemical primarily responsible for catnip’s effects on cats is called nepetalactone. Nepetalactone is an organic compound that belongs to the class of chemicals known as iridoids (1). Iridoids are produced by many plants in the Lamiaceae (mint) family, including catnip (Nepeta cataria). The main active ingredient in catnip is the stereoisomer trans-trans nepetalactone, which makes up about 50-90% of the iridoids in catnip (2). Other iridoids like cis-trans-nepetalactone, cis-cis-nepetalactone, and epoxy-nepetalactone are also present in smaller amounts.

Responses in Cats

cat rolling in catnip

When cats come into contact with catnip, they often exhibit euphoric responses like rolling, flipping, and rubbing on the herb. One key active chemical in catnip is called nepetalactone, which binds to olfactory receptors in a cat’s nose and has effects on the brain (Science News, 2021). This produces a temporary euphoric state typically lasting about 10-15 minutes before subsiding.

During this catnip-induced euphoria, cats will often playfully chase imaginary objects, leap or hop about, roll on the floor, salivate, vocalize, and rub their cheeks on surfaces where catnip has been sprinkled or sprayed. This is all part of the temporary intoxicating effect. Some cats may become more affectionate or relaxed during this time. Most cats seem to find the catnip experience pleasurable.

However, like humans reacting differently to the same drug or alcohol, not all cats have the same response. Around 20-30% of cats seem unaffected by catnip, likely because they lack specific olfactory receptors. But the majority who do react tend to exhibit signature behaviors of temporary euphoria like stretching, rolling, and cheek rubbing when they encounter this feline-attracting herb.

Why Only Some Cats

The nepetalactone response is hereditary in about 2/3 of cats. According to a 1962 study, the sensitivity to catnip is an inherited autosomal dominant gene. This means a cat only needs to inherit the gene from one parent to exhibit the response. However, if neither parent has the gene, the cat will not respond to catnip at all.

Approximately 30-50% of cats lack the nepetalactone sensitivity gene, according to the Humane Society. These cats are unaffected by catnip, while the others experience various responses like euphoria, rolling around, and playfulness when exposed to it. The nepetalactone triggers this behavioral response by binding to receptors in the cat’s nose and mouth.

Olfactory Response

cat sniffing catnip

The active compound in catnip that causes a response in cats is called nepetalactone. This compound binds to olfactory receptors in a cat’s nose, which sends signals to the olfactory bulb region of the brain. Nepetalactone is structurally similar to feline pheromones, which explains why it triggers a response. Studies have shown that the reaction is mediated by the main olfactory system, not the vomeronasal organ as once believed [1].

When cats inhale the nepetalactone molecules, they bind to receptors located on sensory neurons in the olfactory epithelium. This sends neural signals to the olfactory bulb and then the amygdala, which processes emotions and memories. The amygdala then projects signals to areas like the hypothalamus that control behavioral responses [2]. This ultimately triggers the characteristic playful behavior in cats when exposed to catnip.

Brain Chemistry

Catnip contains an active chemical compound called nepetalactone, which binds to receptors in a cat’s olfactory epithelium (the tissue in the nose responsible for the sense of smell). This binding triggers neuron activity in the olfactory bulb region of the brain, which then affects several other regions like the amygdala and hypothalamus.1

Specifically, catnip is believed to alter neurotransmitter levels involved in pleasure and excitement, like dopamine and serotonin. The euphoric feelings from catnip are similar to the effects of opioid substances in the brain.2 An increase in dopamine and serotonin contributes to the relaxed yet playful state that cats enter when exposed to catnip.

Duration of Effects

The effects of catnip on cats generally last between 5 and 15 minutes. The active chemical compounds in catnip trigger reactions in a cat’s brain that cause the euphoric and frenzied behaviors associated with catnip. However, these compounds are metabolized quickly, causing the effects to wear off rapidly.

According to PetMD, after inhaling catnip, most cats “will begin to feel the effects within a few minutes, and the euphoric experience can last for between 5 and 15 minutes before your cat goes back to normal.”

Similarly, the Humane Society notes that a catnip response typically lasts around 10 minutes. After this, as the active chemical compounds are broken down and flushed from a cat’s system, the cat temporarily loses interest in catnip until it fully resets, which can take 1-2 hours.

So in summary, catnip reactions are intense but brief, lasting about 5-15 minutes before rapidly subsiding as the cat metabolizes the active compounds in catnip. After an hour or two, many cats can have another catnip experience.

Long Term Effects

There is no evidence that catnip has any long term effects on cats. The active chemical in catnip, called nepetalactone, binds to receptors in a cat’s nose and produces a temporary euphoric effect [1]. However, research shows catnip does not lead to addiction or have any lasting impact on a cat’s brain chemistry or behavior [2].

cat playing with toy filled with catnip

The response to catnip is believed to be hereditary, with an estimated 50-70% of cats showing a sensitivity to it. But all cats, even those who react strongly at first, build up a tolerance if exposed to catnip too frequently [3]. As such, catnip is considered very safe for cats, without any long term effects from responsible, occasional use.

Other Uses

Catnip has a variety of uses beyond just stimulating cats. It can be used in some cat toys or treats to help relax anxious or stressed cats. The sedative effects of catnip can calm cats down and provide a soothing effect. Some cat toys contain dried catnip or catnip oil that is released when the cat plays with the toy. The catnip encourages playful behavior and provides a positive stimulating effect for cats. Catnip is also sometimes used in treats for cats as it is known to be attractive to most felines. The aroma and taste of catnip is appealing and can make a treat more enticing. When catnip is used properly in toys and treats, it can provide cats with stress relief, entertainment, and encourage healthy play activity.

Conclusion

cat relaxing after catnip

In conclusion, catnip produces a harmless euphoric effect in many domestic cats. The chemical compound nepetalactone found in catnip binds to olfactory receptors in cats’ noses and stimulates a response that affects several areas of the brain regulating pleasure and emotion. This produces a temporary high characterized by playful and excitable behavior lasting 5-15 minutes, after which cats lose interest as they become accustomed to the scent. While the euphoric effects may temporarily alter a cat’s behavior and personality, catnip does not produce any lasting changes or have any addictive properties. Overall, catnip provides a safe and enjoyable experience for cats that many cat owners love observing.

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