Welcome to “Debarking Pet Myths,” a monthly series dedicated to addressing common myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about dogs and cats.
Cat parents, veterinarians and animal scientists have been fascinated and entertained by the reactions of cats to catnip for centuries. Some behaviors of cats “on catnip” appear similar to those of people experiencing drug-induced “highs,” which has led some pet owners to believe this month’s myth:
Catnip is a drug for my cat!
Most people think of catnip as having drug-like effects on their cats. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers a substance a drug if it is intended for use in diagnosing, curing, treating or preventing disease or is a substance other than food that’s intended to affect the structure or any body function. In the case of catnip, it could be considered a drug for the majority of cats that are sensitive to it.
An herb belonging to the mint family
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb belonging to the same family of plants as peppermint and spearmint. Native to Europe, Asia and Africa, historians believe the plant was brought to North America by settlers. Today, catnip grows widely as a weed and is popular in herb gardens.
Catnip contains several essential oils and other compounds which are stored in microscopic bulbs that cover the leaves, stems and seedpods of the plant. The oils are released naturally from these tiny bulbs when the plant reaches maturity, if a passing animal brushes against the plant and bruises the leaves, or if a hungry insect feeds on a leaf.
How catnip affects (most) cats
Catnip’s effects are caused exclusively by its smell. A meow-lecule called nepetalactone is one of the essential oils in catnip and believed to be responsible for sensitive cats’ classic response to the plant. While some scientists describe the feline response as an opium-like reaction, others believe nepetalactone mimics feline pheromones. Regardless of how catnip induces its effects, cats typically respond to the herb by sniffing, licking and biting it; shaking their heads; rubbing their heads, chins or cheeks against it; and rolling over. Other responses may include drooling, vocalizing and kicking catnip with their back paws.
Although intense, the euphoria some cats experience is short-lived, lasting about 10 to 15 minutes. For some kitties, the “buzz” is expressed as aggressive playfulness. For others, catnip causes them to become mellow and calm. Once the euphoria passes, your cat becomes temporarily “immune” to catnip’s effects for roughly two hours.
Catnip is considered to be safe for cats and nonaddictive. Kitties can become accustomed to catnip’s effects if they are exposed to the herb too frequently. If your cat eats a lot of catnip while indulging, they may vomit and have diarrhea. However, they will return to normal when given time.
Not all cats react to catnip
A cat’s reaction to catnip is hereditary. While estimates vary, experts believe 50 to 80 percent of cats are sensitive to nepetalactone, leaving 20 to 50 percent of the cat population unresponsive to the chemical. In addition, kittens less than 3 to 6 months old typically don’t respond to catnip, and may even show an aversion to it.
Many big cats — lions, jaguars, leopards and snow leopards — appear to be sensitive to catnip, too. Tigers, however, are known to not, or only mildly, respond to catnip.