You’ve probably seen a cat going crazy for catnip. They meow, growl and scratch, they roll on the floor, run around, sniff it, lick it, chew on it, shake their heads, kick with their back legs, rub their chins, their heads, their bodies. It’s quite a spectacle to see.
But not all cats react to catnip — around 30% of domestic cats don’t show any reaction at all. And it has been proven that not only domestic cats react to it. There have been lions, tigers, leopards, cougars and lynxes seen reacting to catnip.
So, what is catnip and why do some cats react in such a crazy way?
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is an herb that comes from the same family of plants that mint comes from. It is also known as catmint or Catswort. It contains an essential oil called Nepetalactone, which can be found in the leaves and the stems of the plant. When the cats that are sensitive to it sniff the oil from the catnip, the chemicals from the plant travel through the tissue in their nose and into their brain, where they bind to protein receptors that stimulate sensory neurons. Some of these neurons— including the ones of the “olfactory bulb“ (the region that process the smells)— signal to the brain, which then signals to the amygdala and the hypothalamus, responsible for mediating the emotional responses and regulating the behavior responses. The cat then exhibits a behavior similar to the one they exhibit in response to natural sexual pheromones. But the sexual behavior is just a part of it; several natural feline behaviors occur in reaction to catnip, such as food demanding and hunting techniques.
This sensitivity is believed to be genetic and hereditary, so only the cats with that specific gene will react to it. Plus, they only start reacting after they have reached sexual maturity, which means young kittens be fazed by it.
Now, is it safe?
Yes, it is safe and non-addictive to cats, so a treat of catnip every now and then is cool. Of course, if you see your cat vomits or gets diarrhea from the catnip, don’t give it to them at all, or consult with your vet.
The effect will last around 10 minutes and then there will be a refractory period of about an hour where cats are unaffected. They won’t overdose, cats simply stop when the time has come.
Here you can see cats reacting to the plant.
*This is a full documentary by the BBC, watch only the first three minutes of the video for the catnip scene.