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Why do cats go crazy for catnip?

(Partially adapted from an article written by Ramona Turner DVM and published in Scientific American.)

When cats smell catnip they act like queens in season (females in heat) rubbing their heads and rolling around on the herb , jumping, vocalizing and salivating. It looks for all the world like a frenzy of feline sexual desire and pleasure.

One cat owner described the experience with her own cat who got into catnip:

By any definition, she was your typical friendly cat. That all changed one afternoon when she got a hold of the “Nip.” At first, she rolled around in apparent bliss, purring like a V-6 engine. It seemed like she had simply become a more lubby-dubby version of her lovable self. I moved to innocently pick her up, but suddenly she lashed out furiously with her bear-like paws, claws extended. They caught the supple flesh of my forearm and scratched deep. I recoiled in pain and surprise, shocked at what my feline friend had just done. She stared straight at me, growled, and then hissed. Nickels had transformed into a drug-crazed wildcat.

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Check out this clowder of cats in a catnip garden!: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5Xrcp6k8VE

Don’t be surprised if your cat doesn’t react this way. Catnip is hereditary and 20-30% of cats are not affected. Interestingly, catnip does not affect kittens until they begin to reach sexual maturity at about six months of age.

Catnip plants (Nepeta cataria and other Nepeta species) are members of the mint family and contain the volatile oil Nepetalactone that drives cats crazy. Native to Europe, Asia and Africa, the plant was brought to North America by settlers and is popular in herb gardens and grows widely as a weed. Catnip is considered nonaddictive and completely harmless to cats.

So, how does catnip work? Nepetalactone enters the cat’s nasal tissue, where it binds to protein receptors that stimulate sensory neurons. These cells, in turn, trigger a response in neurons in the olfactory bulb which fires off the signals to other parts of the brain, particularly the amygdala which controls feelings and emotions, and the hypothalamus, the brain’s “master gland” that regulates everything from hunger to emotions and sexual behavior.

The nepetalactone essentially acts like an artificial cat pheromone exciting the cat’s pleasure center. Hence the rolling around in the herb—”More, more, give me more. I can’t get enough of it!” It’s no wonder that many a cat owner has decided to check out the herb for themselves. In the 1600s catnip tea was used as a remedy for nervous headaches, hysteria and insanity. Human brains are physiologically different from cat brains and people do not react to catnip by getting high, even though many tried using it as a substitute for marijuana during the 1960s.

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One committed experimenter went so far as to smoke five bowls of catnip while also inhaling cigarettes claiming effects similar to marijuana. The actual pharmacological effects of catnip on humans remains largely unknown. Many personal accounts can be found on the internet but no substantive, scientific studies have been performed mainly because such research would be costly and impractical. The good news is that it doesn’t take a scientific study to prove that most of our cats get one heck of a kick out of it.

Maybe we should leave catnip for the cats. A few seeds and a small bag of potting soil from your local garden supply store might bring your kitty some pretty intense pleasure. Safe, intense pleasure. Sounds like fun to me. Let your kitty have a little fun!