It’s no secret that cats go absolutely bonkers for catnip. Most cats will get excited, start drooling, and frolic around when any is around. Some claim the cats get intoxicated or ‘high’ off the scent. One reader asks, “Why do cats love catnip, and are they really getting ‘high’ off the smell?” Today we explore this interesting feline phenomena.
Why Do Cats Love Catnip?
Catnip is a herb closely related to oregano, basil and mint. Its Latin name is Nepeta Cataria and is identified by its grey-green heart shaped leaves with serrated edges and small, white, purple spotted flowers. Nepeta Cataria can grow up to three feet tall and grows wild across most of the United States and Canada.
The secret behind catnip is a chemical called nepetalactone. It must be noted however, that not all cats respond to nepetalactone. It is estimated that only 2/3rds of all cats (including big cats) are affected by catnip since the gene for the sensitivity is hereditary. Kittens under 3 months old are also unaffected by nepetalactone.
Because the way the gene for nepetalactone sensitivity is transferred to offspring, there is a very good chance that over generations, cats will be less and less sensitive to catnip – eventually becoming completely unaffected by it.
How Does Nepetalactone Affect A Cat?
When the dried leaves or bits of plant are rubbed/chewed, an oil is released which contains the nepetalactone compound. Nepetalactone acts on a cat as an attractant. This chemical enters the feline’s nose and once it reaches the olfactory epithelium, the nepetalactone binds to the olfactory receptor.
While no one has conclusively proven why catnip acts the way it does on felines, most scientists believe that it mimics a cat pheromone, such as the hypothetical feline facial pheromone or the cat urine odorant MMB. Two hours after the first exposure, a feline will become sensitive to another ‘hit’.
Bonus Facts: Cats also respond similarly to olives. Researchers believe the oleic acid in the olives acts like the pheremone that cats spread around when they rub their chin or cheeks on something. Ants also contain oleic acid and cats will do the same over smashed ants.
Nepetalactone is a strong mosquito and fly repellent. Tests have shown that distilled nepetalactone repels mosquitoes ten times more effectively than DEET, the active ingredient in most insect repellents. However, nepetalactone starts breaking down immediately when applied to skin.