The Science Behind Your Cat’s Catnip Craze

What is catnip?

Catnip (botanical name Nepeta cataria) is a species of the Nepeta genus in the Lamiaceae (mint) family. It is native to parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Catnip contains a chemical compound called nepetalactone that is known to attract cats and affect their behavior.

Nepetalactone is an organic compound that is present in the essential oil of catnip plants. When cats detect this compound, it triggers a response that is akin to euphoria. Catnip is part of the mint family and has a distinct minty smell and flavor, though most cats are attracted to it strictly for the nepetalactone.

The botanical name for catnip highlights its special appeal to cats. Nepeta refers to an ancient Etruscan city where catnip was known to thrive. Cataria comes from the Latin word for cat.

How does catnip affect cats?

cat rolling and rubbing on catnip

Catnip contains an essential oil called nepetalactone that activates receptors in cats’ olfactory systems and triggers a sensory response that can be described as a euphoric high or hallucinogenic reaction (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/experts-how-does-catnip-work-on-cats/). When cats smell or eat catnip, the nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors and stimulates a response that affects both their brain and body.

Catnip induces a stimulant effect in cats, causing behaviors like chin and cheek rubbing, head shaking, rolling, leaping, and playfulness. However, not all cats react the same way to catnip. Studies estimate that around 50-70% of adult cats respond to catnip, while kittens younger than six months generally show no interest (https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/crazy-catnip). The euphoric sensory experience from catnip typically lasts around 5-15 minutes before wearing off.

Why do cats love catnip?

Cats love catnip because of its active ingredient called nepetalactone. This chemical compound mimics a feline pheromone and induces a euphoric reaction when cats smell it (Source). When a cat encounters catnip, the nepetalactone binds to receptors in the cat’s nose and stimulates sensory neurons that transmit signals to the brain’s pleasure centers. This induces a temporary happy and relaxed state, not unlike the high that humans experience.

Sniffing catnip makes cats go a little crazy—you’ll notice playful, hunting type behaviors like head shaking, cheek rubbing, rolling, and bunny kicking. The herb basically makes cats feel good and amps up their normal behaviors. Not all cats react strongly to catnip though. Sensitivity is hereditary and passed on genetically. Only about 50-70% of cats exhibit a clear euphoric reaction.

Catnip sensitivity

Not all cats react to catnip in the same way. Kittens generally do not respond to catnip until they are around 6 months old, likely because the neural pathways that allow them to experience the effects are not fully developed yet.[1] Once cats reach the appropriate age, the majority (around 70-80%) will react to catnip in some way.[2] However, cats’ sensitivity can vary quite a bit. Some cats may become very playful, affectionate or excitable when exposed to catnip. Others have more subtle reactions like chewing on catnip toys. And an estimated 20-30% of cats seem to be immune to catnip’s effects altogether.[3]

some cats more sensitive to catnip than others

A cat’s response to catnip is an inherited genetic trait. Cats that express the “catnip sensitive” gene have receptors in their noses and brains that detect nepetalactone, the essential oil in catnip that causes a response. Cats without this genetic trait lack these receptors and do not experience any effects.[4] Interestingly, big cats like lions, tigers and leopards also respond to catnip in a similar manner to domestic cats.[1]

For cat owners, it can be fun to experiment with catnip to see if your cat reacts strongly or shows little interest. But keep in mind that catnip sensitivity can change over time. Young kittens may start reacting as they get older, while older cats can potentially lose interest.

[1] https://www.petmd.com/cat/general-health/what-is-catnip

[2] https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/crazy-catnip

[3] https://wagwalking.com/cat/condition/catnip-poisoning

[4] https://www.petmd.com/cat/general-health/what-is-catnip

Is catnip harmful to cats?

Catnip is generally considered non-addictive and harmless to cats when used responsibly. The active chemical in catnip, called nepetalactone, binds to receptors in a cat’s nose and has a stimulating effect. However, it is not an addictive substance like nicotine or other drugs.

While catnip will not harm cats when used appropriately, overindulgence can cause temporary side effects. Consuming large amounts may cause agitation, hyperactivity, vomiting, or diarrhea. Some cats may even become aggressive. These effects are temporary and will pass as the cat sobers up. Responsible cat owners should monitor their cat’s catnip use and avoid overindulging.

Overall, most experts agree catnip is not harmful and has no lasting negative side effects. It provides asafe way for cat owners to enrich their pet’s environment. However, like anything, catnip should be used in moderation.[1]

Using catnip safely

It’s important to use catnip safely so that your cat can enjoy the stimulating effects without any negative side effects. Here are some tips for using catnip safely with your feline friend:

using catnip safely in moderation

Use 100% natural dried catnip rather than synthetic catnip oils or spray products, which can contain chemicals. The natural herb is safe for cats when used appropriately. According to one source, “Good news – catnip is non-addictive! Furthermore, its non-toxic qualities mean you can use it regularly without worrying about negative side effects.” [Source]

Introduce catnip slowly and monitor your cat’s reaction. Make sure they don’t get overstimulated or anxious. Start with a small amount of catnip and watch their behavior closely.

Provide catnip inside toys rather than loose leaves. Toys filled with catnip are a great way to allow cats to interact with the herb safely. The catnip is contained while the cat plays with and rubs against the toy.

While catnip is considered safe for cats, always supervise your pet when giving them catnip. Use common sense and moderation.

Catnip spray

Catnip spray can be an effective way to provide cats with the stimulating effects of catnip. The spray contains an oil extracted from catnip plants that triggers cats’ natural hunting instincts when detected by the olfactory nerves. Many cats will display behaviors like rubbing, rolling, and playful aggression after being sprayed with or exposed to catnip spray.

Cat owners should use catnip spray cautiously and in moderation, as some cats may become overly excited or aggressive after being sprayed. It’s best to start with a small amount of spray and monitor your cat’s reaction. Remove access to the spray temporarily if your cat shows signs of distress or aggressive behavior towards humans or other pets. Catnip spray should be an enjoyable experience for cats, not something that stresses them out.

According to the ASPCA, catnip spray is typically not harmful to cats when used properly, but it’s recommended to limit the frequency to avoid habituation. Moderation is key to ensuring your cat enjoys the stimulating effects of catnip spray safely.

Growing Catnip

Catnip is easy to grow and likes sun and sandy, well-draining soil. It can be grown indoors or outdoors.

When growing catnip outside, choose a sunny spot with fertile, well-drained soil. Catnip thrives in soil with a pH between 6.0-7.5. Prepare the soil by mixing in compost or other organic matter. Sow catnip seeds 1⁄4 inch deep, 6-12 inches apart in spring after the last frost. Water regularly to keep soil moist. Catnip grows best when given at least 6 hours of full sun per day.

growing catnip plant

For indoor growing, use a container with drainage holes and quality potting mix. Place in a sunny window and water when the top inch of soil is dry. Fertilize monthly. Indoors, catnip grows up to 18 inches tall and 12 inches wide.

Cats may try to destroy catnip plants with their rough play. Protect plants with row covers or chicken wire.

Sources:

https://www.thespruce.com/how-to-grow-catnip-plants-2132328

https://www.gardenersworld.com/how-to/grow-plants/how-to-grow-a-catnip-plant/

Other cat-safe herbs

Besides catnip, there are some other herbs that are safe for cats and attractive to them as well:

Valerian is an herb that has a similar effect to catnip, inducing a euphoric state when smelled by cats. The chemical in valerian that attracts cats is called actinidine. Valerian can be a good alternative to try if your cat doesn’t respond to catnip.

Silvervine is an herb native to Asia that contains compounds like catnip that cause a euphoric reaction in cats. Silvervine induces rolling, cheek rubbing, and licking behaviors when cats are exposed to it. Many cats that do not respond to catnip will react to silvervine.1

Tatarian honeysuckle is another plant known to attract cats. It contains chemicals similar to nepetalactone found in catnip. The berries of the Tatarian honeysuckle plant can also be appealing to cats.

When giving your cat herbs like valerian, silvervine or Tatarian honeysuckle, it’s best to use the dried form rather than fresh, as the fresh herbs can sometimes cause an upset stomach. Dried herbs can be rubbed on toys or added to treats or food.

Fun facts about catnip

Catnip contains some surprising properties beyond simply making cats act funny. Here are some fascinating facts about this psychoactive herb:

People can safely consume catnip by drinking catnip tea. The plant contains nutrients like vitamin C and can provide a mild relaxing effect for humans. Catnip tea should always be consumed in moderation.

Catnip oil contains compounds that effectively repel mosquitoes. The natural insect-repellant properties mean some people use catnip oil to help keep mosquitoes away.

The euphoric reaction to catnip is hereditary. Around 50-70% of cats have the gene that makes them responsive to nepetalactone in catnip. The other 30-50% of cats are immune to the effects of catnip.

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