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Why do cats like catnip?

Friday, May 18, 2012

We’ve all seen it...a frenzied cat rolling around in catnip, sheer ecstasy on their furry little face. They may start running around like a crazy cat, they may start eating the catnip, or they may start playing frantically with their favorite toy. And then in flash, the episode is over. What is it about catnip that makes cats go wild?

Photo credit: wildeherb.com
Catnip is a perennial herb  in the mint family that grows up to 3 feet tall and has white flowers. The leaves and stem contain a chemical called nepetalactone, which enters the cat’s system through the nose. Whether or not the cat responds to the chemical appears to be genetic, and about  50-75% of cats are affected by catnip.  Interestingly, large wild cats can also be affected by catnip! When a cat smells catnip, it acts as a stimulant, causing the wild running around and playing often witnessed. However, when a cat eats catnip, it acts as a sedative. That’s why you may see your kitty “zonk out” upon ingesting it. 

Nepetalactone is also believed to be a hallucinogen, similar to marijuana or possibly even LSD. Luckily cats cannot overdose or become addicted to catnip, nor is it harmful to them. Many theories exist on why exactly cats act the way they do on catnip, but the most prevailing belief is that it mimics the pheromone that attracts cats. The reaction may be somewhat sexual; the rolling behavior often exhibited is similar to that of female cats in heat. The reaction does not appear to be completely sexual, however, as other behaviors like playing, stalking, and pouncing often accompany a “catnip high.”

The effects of nepetalactone are short, and the average cat only responds to catnip for about 10 minutes.  After that, the effect dissipates and the cat will no longer react to catnip for at least several hours. Catnip for cats is a safe way to stimulate a cat’s desire to play, and is a fun addition to a cat’s playtime (assuming he or she is in the majority that reacts to catnip!) Catnip can be purchased at pet supply stores, or can be easily grown in a home garden. The homegrown variety tends to be quite strong, and many cats enjoy eating the fresh green leaves. It can also be dried and stored for your cat’s enjoyment all year long!

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