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Your Happy Pet: Why cats love catnip

Original Publication Date: March 9, 2015
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

A few whiffs of catnip can kindle a frisky frenzy in your tiny tabby.

Interestingly, catnip has the same effect on tigers, lions and panthers.

Response to catnip is an inherited trait so only about 70 percent of adult cats react, and kittens do not respond until they are 2 to 6 months old.

Catnip, Nepetacateria, is a perennial herb in the mint family that is native to Europe and Asia, but was introduced to North America by colonists in the 1600s where it now grows wild. The Latin-derived name cateria, means "of a cat," and indicates the herb's long association with cats. The true catnip plant has a square, hairy stalk, green/grey heart shaped leaves with scalloped edges and a spike of white flowers.

The active ingredient that causes the euphoric high in cats is nepetalactone, a volatile oil located in microscopic bulbs that coat the leaves and stems. These fragile bulbs rupture when a catrubs or chews the plant and releases nepetalactone into the air. The chemical is completely safe and nonaddictive even though it can send a cat into quite a frenzied state.

It is believed the nepetalactone enters the cat's nasal passages, binds to protein receptors that stimulate sensory neurons to activate neurons in the olfactory bulb which project into many areas of the midbrain including the amygdala and hypothalamus. These regulate emotional and behavioral responses. Basically, it is thought that nepetalactone mimics certain feline pheromones.

Cats can smell one part per billion of the substance in the air so just a sniff can cause a cat to rub his head or body on the herb or jump, roll around, vocalize or salivate. The reaction lasts about 10 minutes. They settle into a kind of stupor for about 30 minutes and remains unresponsive to catnip for an hour or two. Then the attraction of catnip can stimulate another fit of euphoria.

Humans do not respond like cats, but in the 1600s, humans brewed tea, smoked or chewed catnip believing it to act as a mild sedative, and a cure for hives, toothaches and infant colic. In the 1960s, hippies substituted smoking catnip for marijuana. Science determined their highs were apparently figments of their imaginations. When sprayed on clothing, nepetalactone is 10 times as effective in repelling mosquitoes as DEET, the active ingredient in most insect repellents.

If you want to determine if your cat is among the 70 percent that are responsive and give them a treat, you can buy toys stuffed with catnip. Cats like the fresh stuff best so you can purchase plants or seed from your local garden center to grow your own catnip in pots or in your garden. When planting, be sure to leave space for your cat to roll while in a catnip tizzy. Enjoy your kitty's head-over-tail kitty bliss.

Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at