I have no doubt that catnip prompted the Cheshire Cat’s grin. My cat Seren wears the same expression when she indulges. But why do cats find this nondescript herb so attractive? Is it a kitty aphrodisiac, a harmless pleasure or something more sinister?
Nepeta cataria, or catnip, is a strong-scented mint that contains a volatile oil that’s easily released into the air. Biting or rolling on the plant crushes the leaves, and releases the oil so Kitty can get a good sniff.
It doesn’t take much. Cats can detect catnip oil in the air at saturations as low as one part per billion.
How Catnip Affects Cats
Rather than a simple smell, the chemical in catnip resembles sedative components also found in the valerian plant, which may be used in natural therapies to calm pets and people. Catnip also may be similar to one of the substances found in tomcat urine—yucky to you, but a lovely smell to the cat! In fact, this pheromone in urine often triggers the same sort of behavioral reaction in cats as exposure to catnip.
These types of chemicals, once inhaled, enter the cat's highly specialized scenting organ through the roof of the mouth. The vomeronasal or Jacobson's organs sit between the hard palate of the mouth and the septum of the nose, and connect to the mouth via tiny conduits directly behind the cat’s upper incisor teeth. You may see kitty perform an odd facial grimace (flehmen) with lips curled back and mouth open when employing this organ.
The Jacobson’s organs are linked to the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that acts like a switchboard to direct information to higher centers. This part of the brain integrates taste and smell, motivates appetite, and triggers a variety of behaviors.
Kitty "High" From Catnip
In its simplest terms, catnip is a feline hallucinogen.
The kitty "high" lasts from five to 15 minutes, and causes a loss of inhibition. While the behaviors may look similar to cats-in-love, catnip is NOT a feline aphrodisiac. It prompts similar behaviors in both neutered and intact cats. Catnip-intoxicated cats act like furry fools who roll and flop about on the floor, drool, and have a wonderful relaxing time.
Cats rarely respond to catnip until they are about six months old, and some cats never do. The trait is an inherited one, with only two out of three domestic cats being affected; male cats seem to respond more strongly than females. The quality of the catnip also influences the response. I thought Seren was immune, until we happened to find a particularly potent brand--oh, happy day!
Catnip as Behavior Tools
Most scientists agree that catnip provides a harmless recreation for cats. Some cats also respond to other types of mint. Certain types of honeysuckle shrubs prompt a similar reaction.
For cats who respond, catnip can be a wonderful training tool.
Catnip builds the confidence of some shy cats, and it can be used to “spike” the legal scratch objects to help lure kitty to do the right thing. Catnip can help take the cat’s mind off of the scary car ride—or at least induce a catnip snooze so she doesn’t care anymore. It can offer a happy distraction during cat-to-cat introductions, and help the kitties associate positive experiences with the strange critter.
You’ll find catnip toys, herbs, even growing kits advertised in all the finest cat magazines, “special” brands touted in pet stores, and feline fanciers comparing quality like true gourmands. Be aware, though, overindulgence may “wear out” your cat’s response to the plant. An occasional treat, perhaps once every two or three weeks, is plenty.