It’s stimulating. Mind-expanding. Safer to use than alcohol. It’s the in thing. Such are the myths of catnip. Myths that lure thousands of kittens into experimenting with the noxious weed.
Okay, don’t stop reading. I haven’t gone senile. I’m paraphrasing a 1960’s PSA on the addictive evils of smoking marijuana that both funny and sad. But most cats do appear to have the same response to catnip that people do to marijuana. So are our cats stoners? Is it “medicinal?” Should we be enablers?
Catnip (nepeta cataria), along with the popular garden perennial catmint, is part of the family of the same aromatic mint family (Lamiaceae) as things like sage, rosemary, and thyme. (Yes, another 60’s reference). It also includes oregano and basil. But very few cats get excited, stimulated, or numbed by our spice racks. So what’s happening?
According to an article by Live Science, scientists don’t exactly know. However, they do know that cats respond largely to the nepetalactone produced by the leaves and flowers of catnip, and to a lesser degree by catmint. The nepetalactone attracts cats, binds to receptors in their noses and often causes that sudden change in behavior. (Want to have a yard full of cats? Plant your own catnip or catmint. It won’t last long.)
In addition, catnip has other compounds affecting your cat’s neurotransmitters, inhibiting the central nervous system activity. As Jim Simon, co-director of the Center for Sensory Sciences at Rutgers University, observes, “They become playful and get agitated, they get excited, and then they go to sleep. But there’s no information to show that catnip is operating the same way that medical cannabis, marijuana or cocaine does.”
In humans, drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana increases the release of dopamine which alters our mood. But compounds like naloxone block opioid receptors in people. Recent studies have shown similar blocking by naloxone and related compounds in the nervous systems of cats.
Unfortunately, we can’t actually ask cats if they feel euphoric when they whiffle catnip. We can only laugh at the results.
Not all cats respond to catnip or respond in the same way. It was once thought that 66% of adult cats responded with cheek rubbing, vocalizing, or rolling on the ground. But a study published in 2017 in the journal of Behavioural Processes reported some cats sitting sphinx-like and quiet causing scientists to now believe the response rate is a much higher percentage.
Still, I had a rescue cat named Belladonna who couldn’t care less about catnip. It turned out she had responded to something in a completely different plant family. I once purchased a large bag of chamomile and placed it on top of a bookcase when I came in and found Belladonna had scattered my papers. I forgot about the chamomile — only to get up the next morning to find the bag’s contents scattered throughout the living room and Belladonna sleeping off the effects on the sofa hugging her favorite mouse toy!
So go ahead! Feel free to enrich your cat’s environment with a little catnip. Keep in mind that not all catnip is alike. Catnip, like any herb, has varying degrees of strength due to growing conditions and loses potency over time. The refillable catnip toys allow you to keep things fresh. You can also place fabric toys in a container of catnip and leave it for several days (or weeks) to soak up the scent.
And if you are wondering if big cats are also affected, check out the videos below.