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The Science Behind Catnip: Why and How It Works


cat rolling in catnip
Image- Andrew Marttila

If you’ve ever given your cat catnip, you’ve probably seen your feline exhibit behavior that’s way different from how they usually act- they meow loudly and roll around, or bounce off the walls. As a pet owner, it can be amusing to see your cat act like this. But what exactly is catnip, and how does it make cats “high”?


What It Is:

Catnip, Nepeta cataria, belongs to the mint family Lamiaceae. Nepetalactone, the compound that is associated with giving cats a “high”, is produced in glands in the plant’s leaves and flowers. The chemical coats the leaves, seedpods, and stems in microscopic bulbs. When the bulbs rupture, nepetalactone is released into the air.


How It Affects Cats:

Cats are attracted to the smell of nepetalactone, which binds to receptors in their noses. While catnip has other compounds that can stimulate a reaction on their own, nepetalactone is by far the strongest. Sensory neurons leading into their brains are stimulated, and the result can be what looks like a drug high. Most cats will roll around on the ground, rub themselves against the plant, or zone out. Other cats can become aggressive or hyperactive. A “high” usually lasts around ten minutes, after which the cat is immune to effects for approximately half an hour.


Smelling vs. Eating:

Interestingly, the method of consumption affects the behavioral response in a cat. If a cat inhales catnip through its nose, the effect is hyperactiveness or more active behavior. If it is eaten, however, the cat is more likely to be calm and space out.



kitty licking catnip flower
Image- Anna Hoychuck

What’s Happening In the Brain?

When your cat ingests or inhales catnip, their reaction is highly predictable. "Catnip produces a very definite, repeatable response.” says Jim Simon, professor and co-director of the Center for Sensory Sciences and Innovation at Rutgers University. “A cat will pretty much do the exact same thing every time it smells it.” While at face-value it may seem like a cat’s response is comparable to that of a narcotic drug response in people, “...There's no information to show that catnip is operating the same way that medical cannabis, marijuana or cocaine does," Simon said.


Catnip appears to alter activity in several parts of a cat’s brain, most pointedly the olfactory bulb, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is involved in regulating emotions. Scientists cannot give a definitive answer of exactly what’s happening in a cat’s brain, however studies have shown that when cats are given compounds that block opioid receptors in the central nervous system, the effects of catnip are decreased or there are no effects at all. This indicates catnip may affect a cat’s opioid receptors.



kitty snuggles cat nip
Image- Getty Images

A cat cannot get addicted to catnip. If your cat is rubbing their face and rolling in catnip they aren’t trying to consume more of it; instead this is a response directly related to inhaling the catnip- the effect of the catnip compels them to do it. Both male and female cats can get high on catnip; the trait is genetic. There are no known negative side effects, and cats don’t develop a tolerance or dependency. It was previously estimated that roughly 70% of cats are affected; however, in 2017 a study was published that suggested some cats may just show less of an active response. The results indicate that a larger percentage of cats (and maybe even all cats) are affected in some way by catnip.


Catnip can be a great addition to regular playtime with your cat. Providing your cat sitter with this strong-smelling herb can help your pet get their energy out, plus it’s an easy way for your sitter to bond with them!


Bibliography:


-Stromberg, Joseph. “How Catnip Gets Your Cat High.” Vox, 20 Dec. 2014, www.vox.com/2014/9/12/6136451/catnip-cats-science.

-Weisberger , Mindy. “Does Catnip Really Make Cats 'High'?” Live Science, 3 Nov. 2019, www.livescience.com/does-catnip-get-cats-high.html.

-“Crazy for Catnip.” The Humane Society of the United States, www.humanesociety.org/resources/crazy-catnip#:~:text=Most%20cats%20react%20to%20catnip,which%20your%20cat%20loses%20interest

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