The Science of Catnip

The Science of Catnip

I was recently asked why cats react to sniffing catnip. As a veterinarian, I figured this was a question I should have an answer to. But as I thought about it, I realized that I didn’t know. So I looked into it and figured I would share the information I found with my readers at Pawsitively Intrepid.

What Is Catnip?

Catnip, Nepeta cataria, is a plant. Or more specifically, a herb belonging to the mint family. This plant is indigenous to Europe and was introduced to North America with the European settlers. Catnip has had many uses over the years. It has been used in teas and tinctures, and has even been smoked. Teas and infusions made from the leaves were supposed to have a mild sedative effect. The root, if chewed, was supposed to have a stimulant effect. The plant has been used to soothe infantile colic and flatulence. Poultices have also been made from catnip to reduce swelling and ease skin ailments. In more recent years, catnip has even been used in conjunction with marijuana as it can produce auditory and visual hallucinations, in addition to making people feel happy, content, and intoxicated. See this article, written by Grognet, for more on the history of catnip.

Frisko with catnip
Frisko caught while scenting a bag of catnip.

Why And How Do Cat’s React to Catnip?

Over 200 yr ago John Ray first noted that the animal was attracted to catnip when the plant was withered or bruised; this was later reported and confirmed by Philip Miller (1759). – Arthur and Sharon Tucker

 Catnip contains the feline attractant nepetalactone. Nepectalactone makes up 70-99% of the essential oil of the catnip plant. When a cat smells catnip, olfactory (or nose) stimulation results in the “catnip response.” Cats can respond behaviorally to very small air concentrations. Oral administration (eating the catnip), does not induce the same response. At this point, even though catnip can be hallucinogenic in humans, whether or not it is hallucinogenic in cats is unknown. Some researchers have suspected that the spontaneous vocalization that can occur occasionally is a response to hallucinations, but hallucinations have not been proven. An alternative theory is that the smell of catnip may cross-react with a naturally occurring social odor of cats.

What is the “catnip response”?

The catnip response was originally described in 1962 as consisting of four components: 1) sniffing, 2) licking and chewing with head shaking, 3) chin and cheek rubbing, and 4) head-over rolling and body rubbing.  Some cats will also dig, paw, scratch, salivate, and groom. The complete catnip response rarely lasts longer than 15 minutes. Interestingly, the catnip response is not present until at least 8 weeks of age and some cats do not develop the response until they are 3 months of age.

Frisko rolling in catnip
Rolling in catnip

In 1972, a different researcher also noted that environmental and personality factors affect the response. Withdrawn cats reacted poorly, while friendly, outgoing cats reacted the best. (Side note, doing research projects on a cat’s response to catnip sounds like a great career).

The 1962 researcher, Todd, also found that there is a genetic factor of the response to catnip. He stated that the response is inherited as an autosomal dominant gene. In a sample of 84 random cats form the Boston area, he found that approximately one-third of the population did not respond to catnip.

A more recent study from 2017 (Espin-Iturbe, et al), found that about 20% of adult and juvenile cats displayed active behavior responses (like rolling over), whereas 80% of cats displayed passive responses at any age. Passive responses included sphinx-like position, decreased requency in vocalizations, and decreased motor activity. These results suggest that all cats respond to catnip, but expression of response varies.

Frisko in sphinx pose
Frisko in sphinx pose.

In Conclusion

Catnip is used in cats to bring about a euphoric state and does not appear to be harmful. It is very appealing to some cats, although possibly not cats will respond. I recommend incorporating some catnip into your cats environment occasionally. It can be a great boredom buster.

The Research

Many of the research studies I found for this post, were from the 1960s to the 1980s. If you want to read the articles themselves, much of the information for this article was gathered from a 1987 summary article by  Arthur and Sharon Tucker and a 1990 summary article by Grognet (link is above). However, if you are looking for more information, search in Google Scholars. More articles are available (just note that access to many of the articles are subscription based).

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