Most pet owners who have offered their cats a sniff of catnip know how much they love it. But not everyone understands the science behind why cats find the perennial herb so irresistible.
Here we break it down for you. What is catnip? What is the active component of the herb? Why do cats find it so irresistible, and what does it do to our furry friends?
What is catnip?
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) belongs to the mint family of herbaceous plants (family Lamiaceae, formerly Labiatae). It is native to Eastern and Southern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
Northern Europeans and North Americans also cultivate it as an ornamental and insect-repellant herb.
People historically used the leaves for herbal teas valued for their relaxant and sedative properties. They also used it to treat stomach cramps, indigestion, coughs, fevers, insomnia, and anxiety.
But nowadays, the plant is best known for its effects on domestic cats. It derives its name from the observation that cats feel strongly attracted to it and that it has a strange effect on them.
Catnip contains the terpenoid compound nepetalactone, extractable from its essential oil.
Nepetalactone is the primary psychoactive ingredient that affects about 60% of cats that come into contact with it.
Cats’ vomeronasal gland, a scent organ located in the nasal cavity above the roof of the mouth, is sensitive to the substance. The gland sends the scent stimuli directly to the cat’s brain.
Nepetalactone stimulates regions of the brain that regulate emotions, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus, causing a psychotropic high.
Studies suggest the substance has a stimulatory effect similar to sex pheromones in male and female cats.
What is the best way to give a cat catnip?
You may give a cat catnip as either a dried or fresh herb.
The fresh form is more potent than the dried, so you need to reduce the quantity when you give a cat fresh catnip to avoid overdosing.
Take care to prevent your furry friend from sniffing too much of the herb because it can cause unpleasant side effects, such as dizziness and unsteady gait.
Ingesting too much may also cause digestive disturbances, such as diarrhea and vomiting.
Catnip-laced products are available on the market.
Some toys and scratching posts come stuffed with the herb. Sprays containing catnip are also available, which you can apply to toys or scratching posts.
Effects of sniffing catnip
Cats can sniff or eat the herb. Eating the herb has a different effect than sniffing.
When cats encounter the herb, they often handle it playfully, chewing, rubbing, scratching, and pawing to lacerate it and release more scent.
When a susceptible cat sniffs catnip, it experiences mild euphoria, associated with improved mood and heightened physical activity.
Moggies feel pleasure, happiness, or general excitement after sniffing catnip. They may become frisky and engage in playful or even aggressive behavior.
At the height of catnip-induced euphoria, they may become hyperactive and jump around happily, roll on the ground playfully, meowing, and purring repeatedly.
They may also rub affectionately against their favorite humans.
However, after about 5-15 minutes (10 min on average) of exposure, the cat’s olfactory system becomes fatigued and it enters into a phase where it is less responsive to the scent.
Effects of eating
Ingesting the herb may have a different effect compared with sniffing.
It often has a relaxant or sedative effect when taken through the mouth, chewed, and swallowed. Your cat may drool and become relaxed and drowsy.
Cat owners often use the herb solely for recreational purposes. Some vets recommend it to alleviate separation anxiety.
How long does the effect last?
Not all cats respond to catnip. Individuals that respond vary in the intensity and duration of the reaction.
Some react only mildly, while others more intensely. The response typically lasts about 10-15 minutes, after which it wears off gradually.
Your cat may experience a period shortly after this of about half an hour to an hour, during which it does not respond to sniffing the herb.
Juvenile cats younger than six months usually don’t react to catnip. They begin showing the reaction when they are older.
Big cats also love catnip
Other felines reportedly also react to the herb.
Tests show that lions, tigers, leopards, puma, and lynxes show varying responses to catnip similar to domestic cats.