Whether your kitty is fierce, fiesty, lazy, aloof, loving, or just silly it’s probably got a thing for some good ‘ol Nepeta Cataria! Yes, this ancient delicacy is a long time vice of leopards, lynxes, cougars, servals, cougars, the occasional lion or tiger; as well as your own personal travel-size feline. Some call it catswort or catmint, but its most common nickname is catnip. It deals the same quizzical, adorable and often hilarious reactions from any of the felid species that have a sensitivity to it. Why though? What is it about this odd mint that turns our usually graceful and elegant felines into tripped out goofballs?
Catnip is a member of the mint family of plants. It’s native southern and eastern Europe, southwest and central Asia, as well as some parts of China. Since it’s cultivation by humans its habitat has spread to northern Europe, North America, and even New Zealand. Catnip isn’t just for cats though. It has had a range of medicinal and even culinary uses for humans. From herbal cigarettes and poultices, to tinctures and tea. The ingestion of catnip by humans in the forms of tea, smoke, tinctures, or other types of infusions sheds some light on the biochemistry at play with this feline favorite.
The active ingredient in catnip is type of chemical called a ‘terpenoid’, nearly universal in plants, especially ones with any sort of fragrance. These compounds are often what give various plants (including cannabis) their distinctive smells. Many of them have been used as medicine since prehistoric times. The key chemical we’re interested in here is one called ‘Nepatalactone’. It’s what is responsible for both the medicinal qualities in humans, and the comical behavior cats display when it hits their nose. That’s right, the nose knows as far as the feline side of catnip goes. Catnip gives off nepatalactone as a vapor, which is why cats will chew, knead, or otherwise batter catnip whether in the wild or in toy form.
By bruising and busting up the plant material, nepatalactone is released from the cells of the plant. Once it’s in the air it interacts with the part of the cats nose we also share called the ‘olfactory epithelium’. A fancy term for the part that allows us to smell things. When this chemical binds to the receptors on the inside of their nose it elicits its inebriating effect. This effect diminishes when the cat experiences something called ‘olfactory fatigue’ which is pretty much what it sounds like: Their nose gets tired of smelling and needs a break. This is also something humans experience, for instance if you’ve ever tried to smell coffee beans or wine for more than a couple minutes without much rest you’ll notice your ability to distinguish smells rapidly falls off.
For cats, this fatigue lasts for at least 20 minutes, but it can be up to an hour. After this the cat can become re-interested in the mint and begin the cycle all over again. However, not all cats are sensitive to catnip, as a matter of fact only about two-thirds of our furry companions even respond to it. The ability to be enticed by, let alone kitty-wasted by catnip is actually a genetic trait, which sheds light on why other species of felid can also be sensitive to it at varying percentages.