What’s the Deal with Catnip? – The Low Down on this Natural High

Dr Caity Venniker 

 

Most of us have seen the strange effects of catnip on our furry little friends, and how it brings out a crazy side in some cats, while others seem completely indifferent.  Just within the KatKin family, Brett's cat, Molly, loves catnip; while my cat, Gorbi, couldn't care less. Today we look at the facts regarding this interesting plant.  
 
  • Catnip is an herb from the mint family which alters the behaviour of most cats. About two thirds of adult cats are obviously affected, with the remainder showing little or no response. Kittens only begin to be affected from two to three months of age, and geriatric cats seem less affected.
 
  • The effect of catnip, or lack thereof, is linked to the presence of a gene within the individual cat’s DNA; and sensitivity in considered to be an inherited trait. Interestingly, in Australia, most cats are not sensitive to catnip(1). This is thought to be due to the largely closed gene pool in which most cats are largely resistant to its effects.
 
  • While domestic cats are the species most intensely affected by catnip, many large cats such as jaguars and lions display similar behaviour changes, and it has been used as bait in trapping lynx and other wild cats. Catnip has also been used as a relaxing agent in humans in teas and poultices, as well as a mosquito and fly repellent!
 
  • The active ingredient, Nepetalactone, is found in the leaves and stems of the plant. It acts as a stimulant to cats when smelt; and as a sedative when eaten. Affected cats will smell, lick and rub the plant, roll around on the floor, play, vocalise, or even become aggressive. This lasts for about ten to fifteen minutes and then wears off and the cat will become disinterested.
 
  • Cats become habituated to catnip if exposed often; and are most responsive if catnip is used only once every two to three weeks.
 
  • Catnip is natural and quite safe. Toxicity is rare, occurring only when excessive amounts are ingested, and resulting in gastrointestinal upset which resolves in time. The effects of catnip are short-lived and it is non-addictive.
 
  • The exact mechanism of action of catnip is not fully understood. While it seems to mimic the action of pheromones, it is not mediated through the vomeronasal organ (which is the organ involved with pheromones) but rather receptors in the nose(2). Some studies suggest that opioid receptors may be involved(3). In humans, activation of this set of receptors leads to feelings of euphoria, and while this does appear to be the case in cats, we cannot assume that they feel the same way as we do. It is possible that catnip may even have hallucinogenic effects, so some owners feel that its use may be unethical.

 
The response to catnip is dependent on the individual cat, and its use as an attractive scent or for play is at your discretion. While we cannot know exactly how it makes our cats feel; as the owner you can probably make an educated guess from his or her response. After all, no one knows your cat better than you do!
 

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References

  1. (2012, January 12). 10 fun facts about catnip. Healthy Pets. Retrieved from: https://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2012/01/12/catnip-fun-facts.aspx 
  1. Hart, B.L.& Leedy, M.G. (2004, October 31). Analysis of the catnip reaction: mediation by olfactory system, not vomeronasal organ. Science Direct. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0163104785911513
  1. Weisberger, M. (2019, November 3). Does catnip really make cats ‘high’? LiveScience. Retrieved from: https://www.livescience.com/does-catnip-get-cats-high.html

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