As many as four out of 5 cats are naturally attracted to catnip. It’s like a magic spell that is cast on the majority of the feline world. Add catnip to a bowl of fresh water and even a not-so-fond-of-drinking cat will be licking away with gusto. It’s like cats are put in a trance whenever catnip is around. However, there really is a more rational, more logical, and more empirical explanation to such feline behavior. In this guide we shall explore deeper into the world of cats and catnips.
What is Catnip?
Catnip is a minty herb that is known to grow in abundance in eastern and southern Europe, central Asia, the Middle East, and certain regions in China. However, it is now also widespread in North America, northern Europe, and New Zealand. Botanists call it Nepeta cataria, a rather short-lived plant that grows up to 39 inches in height. It has a characteristic brown-green foliage complete with a rather odd square and hairy stem. The leaves are similar to members of the mint family: elliptical to triangular in shape but with coarse-toothed edges.
Its principal active chemical ingredient is nepetalactone, a type of terpenoid. Plant terpenoids are highly valued for their aromatic properties and have been used extensively in the management of common ailments as traditional herbal remedies. Native Americans were known to use catnip in the management of infant colic, calming babies in the process. The herb has also been used in the management of migraine headaches, indigestion, anorexia, gas, nervousness, cramps, and insomnia. There are also documented reports of catnip use in the reduction of swelling seen in soft tissue injuries and arthritis. Unfortunately, the use of catnip in alternative medicine has largely fallen out of favor since there are now plenty of pharmaceutical products that are a lot more convenient to take.
Regardless, it is the aromatic properties of nepetalactone that is regarded as the principal reason why majority of cats are attracted to it.
Why Do Cats Love Catnip?
Experts in the field of feline behavior know that cats – big and small, domesticated and wild – are especially susceptible to certain volatile oils – in this case, nepetalactone – that are found in the leaves and stems of Nepeta cataria or catnip. The general observation is that when cats are exposed to these volatile oils they tend to exhibit a variety of behaviors that are more commonly seen in female cats in heat.
Cats exposed to nepetalactone are observed to rub their bodies and heads on the catnip itself. Some may show increased salivation, roll around, jump, or even increase their vocalization. These behavioral responses usually last about 10 minutes after which subsequent exposure to catnip will not result in the same behaviors. Only after half an hour of temporary ‘numbness’ to catnip will the cat again become susceptible to the central nervous system effects of catnip. Many pet parents as well as a few veterinarians call the 10-minute effect of catnip on cats as hallucinogenic.
So how does nepetalactone exert its so-called ‘hallucinogenic’ effect?
When a cat smells catnip it actually smells the nepetalactone present in the leaves and stems of the minty plant. Nepetalactone is a volatile oil that binds with certain protein receptors found in the olfactory bulb of the cat’s nose. These receptors convert the volatile oil into an electrical signal that is carried to the brain including the hypothalamus and the amygdala.
The hypothalamus is that part of the brain that is responsible for the regulation of a variety of physiologic processes in the cat’s body. These can include body temperature, thirst, sleep, hunger, fatigue, circadian rhythm, and even attachment and parenting behaviors. In addition to regulating these processes, the hypothalamus is also the all-important bridge between the nervous system and the endocrine system, essentially providing the necessary neurohormones that will stimulate the pituitary gland and other glands of the endocrine system.
On the other hand, the amygdala is not actually an organ in itself but rather a cluster of nuclei that are located deep in the middle of the temporal lobe. Scientists say that the amygdala is important in the processing of emotional responses, memory, and decision-making. Of particular importance is its role in the increase in sexual behavior when the amygdala is stimulated.
To put it simply, the amygdala is responsible for integrating the sensory signal coming from the nose of the cat. These electrical signals are transmitted to various parts of the brain that have a role in the regulation of behavioral responses. The hypothalamus receives these electrical signals and sends the appropriate neurohormones to the pituitary gland for the secretion of appropriate hormones, including adrenocorticotropic hormones that can lead to the secretion of sex hormones. The entire process leads to the exhibition of a ‘sexual response’. One can, thus say that nepetalactone in catnip is more like a pheromone for cats.
The sexual behavior of cats is just one of the effects of catnip on cats. It should be understood that nepetalactone is a central nervous system stimulant so you can imagine all the different functions of the brain going ballistic. However, having too much of nepetalactone can have the opposite – sedative – effect.
For a long time, catnip attraction among cats was believed to follow strict Mendelian patterns of inheritance because of the observation that only two-thirds of cats actually display this uncanny attraction to catnip. The remaining one-third did not show any distinct behaviors that can be linked to their exposure to catnip.
However, recent studies show that the peculiar attraction of cats to catnip does not necessarily follow a Mendelian pattern. Instead, a polygenic model of inheritance has been identified, putting the proportion of cats displaying catnip-attraction behaviors to 70 to 80 percent.
Whether it is Mendelian or polygenic inheritance, one thing is certain: not all cats respond to catnip like females in heat. As a matter of fact, felines who do not show any behavioral change as a result of exposure to catnip volatile oils are known to exhibit the same behaviors when exposed to valerian, silver vine, or even Tatarian honeysuckle.
It is also important to know that kittens below the age of 6 months typically don’t show any susceptibility to the aromatic effects of nepetalactone.
What are the Uses of Catnip?
The strong aromatic properties of catnip owing to its volatile oil, nepetalactone, can be harnessed for a variety of uses. Here are some of them.
- Feline training
Cats are especially known for scratching. They scratch not because they like the idea of having to shred your favorite furniture or upholstery, but rather because it is their way of sharpening their claws which they can use for climbing trees and other vertical structures. They also scratch to help increase the flexibility of the joints of their spine as well as limbs. Cats also tend to scratch because it gives them the opportunity to ‘mark their territory’. While scratching is a normal behavior in cats, you don’t want them to be scratching your most precious furniture.
This is where catnip can help. You can purchase a cat scratching post or even make one yourself. Now add catnip into the structure and your cat will be more than willing to scratch the post and save you from severely-damaged furniture. You are using catnip to help train your pet cat to go to its scratching post whenever it feels like it needs some claw re-sharpening.
The same is true if you are training your feline friend on how to use a cat bed or even a kitty den. You can simply sprinkle a few crushed leaves of catnip into its bed and it will thank you for providing such a comfy and really attractive bed.
- Interactive playtime
There are cat lures that are designed to exercise your pet cat while giving it the chance to act out its predatory nature. There are actually some feline interactive toys that use catnip as the lure. Since cats can smell the volatile oil present in catnip, they will have plenty of fun running after, swiping, and even pouncing on the catnip lure. Just be cautious though as once they ‘capture’ the ‘prey’ letting go won’t be particularly easy.
Alternatively, you can make your own interactive toy for your pet cat. Crush a few catnip leaves, mix a couple or so of the herb’s stems, and put this catnip ‘blend’ inside an old sock. Now tie the open end of the sock and connect it to a durable nylon cord plus a handle to maneuver the lure. You can also use the same catnip blend and place it inside a small paper bag. Crumple the paper bag and turn it into a tight ball. Your kitty will be more than happy swiping and playing with its new paper ball.
- Food additive
If you have a picky eater you can try sprinkling your cat’s food with a few morsels of catnip. Experts say that it is safe to consume. While it is true that it can cause stomach upset, this typically occurs in cases where your cat ate too much of the herb. A little sprinkling of the herb should help stimulate your pet’s appetite and finish its food.
Improving the appetite of your feline friend can have important implications. First, it will be able to utilize more of the nutrients found in its food. Second, these nutrients will be distributed to all parts of the cat’s body. Third, since all tissues are receiving the right nutrients, they will be able to function at a more optimal level. Fourth, the overall effect of an enhanced appetite in a cat that has appetite issues is one of a general improvement in the cat’s health.
- Water enhancer
Unlike dogs, cats cannot readily identify the sensation of thirst. This is because cats in the wild obtain their water from the very same animals that they prey on. When a tiger strikes an impala, it only gets about 20 to 30 percent of the impala’s weight as proteins and fats. The remaining 70 to 80 percent is actually water in the form of moisture. Throughout their evolutionary development, cats have retained this tendency to obtain water from their food. It is also for this reason that the best food for cats is one that contains lots of moisture since it reflects the proportion of dry food matter to moisture content that they have in the wild.
Regrettably, majority of the pet food given to cats today only contain about 10 to 12 percent moisture. The remaining 58 to 60 percent have to be obtained from water sources. However, this is where the problem lies. Cats will never drink water unless you make it more appealing. Catnips have been recommended as one of the best ways to entice your cat to drink more water. Simply put a leaf or two of catnip in its water bowl, fill it up with fresh drinking water, and you’ll be seeing your pet heading more frequently to its bowl to drink.
- Insect repellent
Felines may not have issues with insects bugging them, but they sure can benefit from the insect repellent properties of catnip. Nepetalactone has been proven to be an effective repelling agent against flies and mosquitoes. As you may already know, mosquitoes carry the dreaded causative agent of heartworm disease, Dirofilaria immitis. While it is true that heartworm disease is almost always thought of as an exclusive disease among canines, other mammals such as cats can be infected, too. All your cat needs is a good bite from a Dirofilaria immitis-carrying mosquito.
There are a few research studies showing the effectiveness of nepetalactone to be ten times that of DEET. Rubbing crushed catnip leaves on your pet’s coat should help protect it from these mosquitoes. A better solution is to plant these herbs in your garden so you’ll have a natural insect repellent for you, your family, and your pets.
Some Precautions When Giving Your Cat Catnip
Catnip can indeed have many uses. However, this doesn’t automatically mean that you should already give your feline friend a daily dose of this cat attractant. While it is generally safe, there are certain precautions you have to observe.
First, always give catnip in moderation. While it is true that it is non-toxic to cats, there have been documented reports of vomiting and diarrhea as a result of ingesting too much catnip. Unfortunately, determining ‘how much is too much’ can be exceptionally challenging as different felines will react differently both between breeds and within breeds. Some cats may pass loose watery stools after consuming only one or two leaves of the herb while others may require a cupful of catnip before they begin to show stomach upset. As a precaution, it is best to start with fewer amounts of catnip rather than going full blast the first time.
Second, cats under the influence of catnip are known to be especially ‘flirtatious’. You will find them rolling around, exposing their tummies. If this cat of yours happens to be a female, it might be interpreted by a male cat as a sign of feline estrus or feline heat. If you’re not yet ready to have a full set of new kitties at home, resist the temptation of petting or even touching your female cat’s tummy while it is on its back. Remember, this sign of a cat in heat is nothing more than the pheromone-like effects of netepalactone.
Third, understand that catnip is mostly hereditary with the proportion of affected cats as low as 65% to as high as 80%. What this simply means is that there will always be cats that will not show any effects of nepetalactone. That being said, don’t make the mistake of increasing the amount of catnip you are giving to your cat in an attempt to elicit a response. Even if you do increase the amount of catnip consumption, there is still no guarantee that your cat will show the expected response for the simple fact that your kitty might be one of those that belong to the one-third to one-fifth of the feline population that don’t get affected by catnip. What your cat will get, however, is diarrhea and vomiting.
Fourth, you need to be especially cautious if your kitty happens to be fond of the outdoors. If it is ‘under the influence’ of catnip, there is a possibility that it may not be totally aware of its surroundings. They may wander in the streets or become the target of neighborhood predators.
Fifth, clear your home of toxic or potentially hazardous materials. Cats on catnip can have their perceptions altered for a good 5 to 10 minutes. They may eat almost anything that they would otherwise not even think of touching.
Catnip is safe to give to cats as it is non-toxic, except perhaps for diarrhea and vomiting in case you give too much. However, there are also some serious implications in its use. It is, therefore important to understand these implications so you can optimize the full benefits of using catnip to address a variety of concerns for your pet cat.
- Truth about Catnip, Pets WebMD
- Does Catnip Really Get Your Cat High? Facts About Your Cat’s Favorite Plant, PetMD
- How Does Catnip Work Its Magic on Cats?, Scientific American