Why Are Cats So Crazy for Catnip?
by Jane Meggitt - 8/12/19
What does catnip do to cats? The calmest, shyest kitty starts rolling around the floor in ecstasy after exposure to this cat-friendly plant. The good news is that catnip exposure and its subsequent euphoria is safe for felines. Grow catnip in your garden for your favorite cats.
What Is Catnip?
A member of the mint family, Nepeta cataria is native in much of the globe, including Africa, Asia and Europe. In the wild or in the garden, catnip resembles other types of mints, blooming in North America from spring to fall. The herb sports an ancient history in human medicine, dating back to the Egyptians. Since Egyptians worshipped cats, it stands to reason they shared this versatile herb with their felines. Cats react to the odor of catnip, not its taste. Like other herbs, catnip contains oils, along with acids and tannin. When cats roll on the leaves, the leaves release oils. One of those oils, nepetalactone, enters the cat’s nose when sniffed. There, it binds to receptors stimulating sensory neurons, provoking a reaction in the olfactory bulb and on to the brain’s amygdala and hypothalamus.
What Does Catnip Do to Cats?
Unsurprisingly, there’s a feline sexual component to catnip’s effects, although neutered cats respond to it, too. When the cat’s “master gland,” the hypothalamus, receives information about nepetalactone, it initiates a sexual response in the pituitary gland. The amygdala, meanwhile, oversees information regarding behavioral responses. Cats “high” on catnip display behaviors similar to females in heat. That includes the lolling around, vocalization, head rubbing, hyperactivity and salivation common when cats enjoy their ‘nip. If your pal responds to it, catnip can be used in a variety of ways.
The experience doesn’t last long, and within 10 minutes most cats return to normal mode. Generally, giving a cat more catnip after he’s indulged won’t work, because his body becomes immune to the oil’s effects for at least 30 minutes afterward. It’s virtually impossible for a cat to overdo catnip. However, overexposure can dull a cat’s reaction. If you want your kitty to continue enjoying catnip, limit his herbal treat to once a day.
Not every feline reacts to catnip. There’s a hereditary component in the catnip response. While approximately 75 percent of cats exhibit classic exposure behavior, about one out of four cats couldn’t care less–it’s not in their genes. Catnip has no effect on animals that haven’t reached sexual maturity, which for most cats occurs after six months of age.
Humans don’t possess the same nasal receptors as felines, so people won’t get high from catnip. It is perfectly safe for people, and catnip has various medicinal uses. When people use catnip, they do so in a tea, as a tincture or in a capsule.
What Does Catnip Do to Dogs?
Don’t panic if Fido gets into Fluffy’s catnip, although he’s more likely to eat the leaves than roll in them. Catnip won’t hurt dogs, but it does have a sedative effect. For many dog owners, that’s a plus, not a minus. Consider giving your dog catnip about 30 minutes before a stressful event, such as a vet visit. If your pooch fears thunder, catnip given when storms are forecasted might keep him calmer.
Traditionally, catnip is used to relieve indigestion, so if your dog suffers from mild stomach issues or flatulence, the herb may ease discomfort. Humans use catnip for the same purposes.
Jane Meggitt’s work has appeared in dozens of publications, including USA Today, The Alternative Daily, nj.com, The Happy Cat Site and The Nest Pets. She is a graduate of New York University.