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Cuckoo for Catnip: Why Cats go Crazy for Catnip

Updated on October 10, 2015
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DiDi is a healthy food writer who focuses on functional foods. You can read her blog at RXcipes

Why Your Cat's Crazy for Catnip

The Catnip Effect

It takes little more than a whiff or two for the most phlegmatic of cats to transform into a furry ball of ecstasy. Frisky and frolicking, rubbing and rolling, head over heels over tail - as Simon the cat shows below, cats go gaga over catnip.

Kitty Crack: Not Just for Tame, Little Ones

What does it take to transform the King of the Jungle into a frisky ball of feline fur like an overgrown kitten? In a word: catnip. This humble aromatic herb is renowned for the euphoric effect it has on cats. Not just the little house cats, but the Big Cats too.

Lions, leopards, cheetahs: they all go gaga over catnip, as this video shows. Take a look: this is the cutest cat video ever! Well... IMHO.

Do Big Cats go Gaga for Catnip?

The cat’s responses are actually pretty similar to a female cat’s typical playful, even predatory reaction to sexual pheromones. The behavior, however, is not directly related to any sexual response (Source).

The kitty high can last from 10 to 15 minutes. After this, the cat will be immune to catnip’s charms for about an hour. Often, this activity is followed by a crash: a period of sedentary zoning, when the cat may settle into a dreamy, silly pose.

The cat’s pawing, chewing and rubbing against the catnip leaf helps release even more of the intoxicating vapor into the air.

So, How Does Catnip Work Its Magic On Cats?

According to the American Chemical Society, catnip owes its psychoactive effect to nepetalactone, a compound found in the herb’s essential oil. Nepetalactone is a feline attractant that exerts its influence through the olfactory system, the sensory system that is responsible for the sense of smell. Experts believe that it works by mimicking pleasure-seeking pheromones in the cat’s brain.

How Pheromones Work
Pheromones are chemical compounds that enable creatures of the same species to communicate with each other. In effect, they act as airborne messengers that carry information between individuals of the same species.

When a cat, for example, secretes pheromones, they impact the behavior of its fellow cats. They do this by binding with neural receptors in the other cats, and trigger an instinctive pattern of behavior.

Mimicking Pheromones
Nepetalactone acts in a similar way when a cat inhales the essential oil from catnip. It binds with olfactory receptors in the cat’s nose. These receptors, in turn, trigger a neurological response that causes the cat’s euphoric behavior.

Kitty Crack? What the Science Says...

While catnip may have an LCD-like effect on your cat, it is neither a drug nor addictive. This infographic explains the chemistry behind the drug-like effects of this herb

This infographic shows the chemistry behind catnip's hallucinogenic effect on cats.
This infographic shows the chemistry behind catnip's hallucinogenic effect on cats.

How Catnip Works

Genetically Coded

The sensitivity to catnip is an inherited susceptibility: experts say more than 70% of all cats inherit a “catnip gene” that makes them susceptible to the herb. The rest are simply indifferent to it. One in four cats is not genetically wired to go gaga over catnip.

The trait does not emerge until a kitten is about six months old and approaching sexual maturity. Adult cats experience the greatest effects, which may be due to the maturity of their reproductive senses and stronger pheromonal instincts.

In the Canadian Veterinary Journal, Grognet observes that, unlike the frenzied, even uncontrollable high a human may experience by taking a hard drug, "Catnip produces a very definite, repeatable response. A cat will pretty much do the exact same thing every time it smells it."

Catnip, botanical name Nepeta cataria, is an aromatic herb of the mint family. An herbal cousin of peppermint and spearmint, it is native to Asia and Europe, and was introduced to North America by European colonists.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Nepetalactone, the compound that gives catnip its effect, is found in microscopic bulbs that coat the herb's leaves and stems. When these fragile bulbs are ruptured, they release nepetalactone into the air.Cats get their high off catnip by inhaling the nepetalactone from a live plant, plucked leaves, dried herb material, or an essential oil extract.Catnip is an aromatic flowering herb in the mint family. Close herbal cousins include peppermint, oregano and basil
Nepetalactone, the compound that gives catnip its effect, is found in microscopic bulbs that coat the herb's leaves and stems. When these fragile bulbs are ruptured, they release nepetalactone into the air.
Nepetalactone, the compound that gives catnip its effect, is found in microscopic bulbs that coat the herb's leaves and stems. When these fragile bulbs are ruptured, they release nepetalactone into the air. | Source
Cats get their high off catnip by inhaling the nepetalactone from a live plant, plucked leaves, dried herb material, or an essential oil extract.
Cats get their high off catnip by inhaling the nepetalactone from a live plant, plucked leaves, dried herb material, or an essential oil extract.
Catnip is an aromatic flowering herb in the mint family. Close herbal cousins include peppermint, oregano and basil
Catnip is an aromatic flowering herb in the mint family. Close herbal cousins include peppermint, oregano and basil

A Human High?

Catnip does not have a reciprocal effect on humans. There is no similar human high, because our brain is physiologically different from the cat’s brain; it is not wired to be triggered by cat pheromones.

Neural receptors are species-specific, and can only be found in the species that produces the pheromones. Without these receptors, the human brain is immune to the lure of catnip.

Sniffing versus Sipping

While sniffing catnip does not have an effect on humans, it has a sedative effect when they sip it as an herbal tea. In fact, as early as the 1600s, Europeans valued the herb as a mild sedative, brewing tea or extracting juice from its leaves. It was a widely popular tea before they were introduced to Asian teas. Today, herbalists often prescribe catnip tea for its calming, sedative effect, which is similar to that of chamomile.

Catnip Herbal Tea

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Catnip tea has a calming, sedative effect on humans, that’s very similar to chamomile Catnip was widely ------- in Europe until the introduction of black tea from China.
Catnip tea has a calming, sedative effect on humans, that’s very similar to chamomile
Catnip tea has a calming, sedative effect on humans, that’s very similar to chamomile
Catnip was widely ------- in Europe until the introduction of black tea from China.
Catnip was widely ------- in Europe until the introduction of black tea from China.

Another benefit that catnip offers is its excellent insect repellent properties. Research shows that it is even more powerful, albeit shorter-lasting than DEET, the most-widely used chemical repellent. Other benefits this herb offers include alleviating colic in infants, relieving excessive flatulence and treating toothaches.

Tips for Using Catnip

Storing Catnip

Catnip, like other essential oils, loses its potency over time. It is also photosensitive to Ultra Violet rays, so over time, exposure to light causes it to lose potency even faster.

If you need to store catnip, freeze it in an airtight container. This will keep it fresh and help to maximize its potency. If that is not convenient, then use an airtight container, and store it in a cool dark place.

Giving Catnip

There are different ways to give catnip to your cat.

  • Grow it in a pot and keep it near a window or in their cat enclosure.
  • Dry it out and crumble some on the floor for them.
  • Buy toys with catnip in them
  • Spray it on the scratching tree

Rejuvenating Catnip Toys

To rejuvenate an old catnip toy, rub loose catnip on the toy’s exterior to refresh the scent. You can also store it overnight in a baggie with catnip, or spray it with catnip oil spray.

If you are using dried catnip, crumble it to release the potent essential oil, before you just sprinkle it.

Desensitization Happens

Your cat can get desensitized if she’s around catnip all the time. To avoid this, put away catnip toys after play. Put them back out after a day or two.

Brew your self a Cuppa! Here's how:

Ingredients

  • 2 teaspoons catnip
  • 1 cup water, boiling hot
  • Honey to taste

Instructions

  1. Place the dried catnip in a cup
  2. Add the boiling hot water and cover
  3. Steep for 10 to 15 minutes
  4. Strain. Flavor with honey as needed

How do You Rate Catnip Tea

5 stars from 1 rating of Catnip Tea

Cook Time

Prep time: 3 min
Cook time: 12 min
Ready in: 15 min
Yields: 1 cup

Your Turn!

Is your cat crazy for Catnip? One in four kitties are not!

See results

Kitties On a 'Nip Trip

© 2015 Dee

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