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The Science Behind Catnip

When we think of the very best treats or enrichment we can give our cats, catnip is most likely one of the first things that comes to mind. Nepeta cataria, more commonly known as catnip, is an herb that is actually part of the mint family! In fact, it can even be found in some teas that we humans drink. Today, we dive deeper into the science behind catnip.

When you think of catnip, you probably think of the chaos that ensues after sprinkling a handful on the ground…but did you know that it doesn’t affect every cat? According to Vet Street, “The catnip response is inherited, and some 30 to 50 percent of cats lack the gene that lets them turn on and tune out. Other times, a cat may simply be too young. The proclivity doesn’t become apparent until a kitten is three to six months old. Be aware, too, that the “high” usually wears off after about 10 minutes. It may take a couple of hours for your cat to respond to it again.” If you have a cat who doesn’t react to catnip, don’t worry- another option to try is silvervine, a climbing plant that gives cats a similar effect, which is sold as small sticks often seen at local pet stores, or online!

So how exactly does catnip work? First, it’s important to note that “cats have an extra scent organ called the vomeronasal gland in the roof of their mouth. This special pathway allows scents that are collected in the nose and mouth to be carried to the brain.” (source: PetMD)

Scientific American breaks down the reaction which happens after getting a whiff of it: “Nepetalactone, one of catnip's volatile oils, enters the cat's nasal tissue, where it is believed to bind to protein receptors that stimulate sensory neurons. These cells, in turn, provoke a response in neurons in the olfactory bulb, which project to several brain regions including the amygdala (two neuronal clusters* in the midbrain that mediates emotional responses to stimuli) and the hypothalamus, the brain's "master gland" that plays a role in regulating everything from hunger to emotions.” Following this, the amygdala integrates the information flow from the olfactory bulb cells and projects to areas governing behavior responses. The hypothalamus regulates neuroendocrine responses through the pituitary gland, creating a "sexual response." That is, the cat essentially reacts to an artificial cat pheromone.” (Scientific American)

And the response to catnip is just as interesting, as it varies so greatly! While some cats become overly affectionate and playful, others will display aggression or play a bit too rough, and as we previously mentioned, not all cats even have a reaction! This reaction impacts more than just our domesticated house cats as well; bobcats, mountain lions, lynx, tigers, and other big cats are non to have a similar reaction!

So we have to ask, how does your cat respond to catnip?


How Does Catnip Work Its Magic on Cats?

Publication: Scientific American

Publisher: SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, a Division of Springer Nature America, Inc.

Date: May 29, 2007

Copyright © 2007, Scientific American, Inc.


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