Why Cats Eat Catnip
Wild and domestic cats normally eat a small amount of plant matter as part of their regular diet. Unfortunately, cats kept exclusively indoors may munch on household plants, if they are not provided with another source of plant material. Many house plants are poisonous or can otherwise be dangerous to cats, including dieffenbachia (“dumb cane”), chrysanthemum, poinsettia, bird of paradise, mums, asparagus fern, seed pods and beans of some dried tropical plants, ivy leaves and the berries of mistletoe and Christmas cherry, and many others.
Indoor cats should be provided with a source of safe plant material. Owners can grow their cats a pot of lawn grass, oat grass, wheat grass, parsley or clover. Better yet, they can grow an entire indoor pot or outdoor plant of catnip! Most cats enjoy catnip, whether fresh or dried. Catnip thrives in full sun and dry soil. Outdoors, it is considered to be a fairly invasive plant. Catnip is safe for cats to be around and also to eat. It is commonly contained inside stuffed toys marketed for domestic cats. It can be purchased from many veterinarians and pet stores and is available as an extract, an aerosol spray, as a live plant, as seeds and in dried leaf form. Despite its widespread use, very little is known about catnip and exactly how it works.
How Catnip Affects Cats
In a nutshell, catnip causes intensely pleasurable reactions in most, but not all, domestic cats. It also has been shown to affect lions, bobcats, lynx, leopards, jaguars, pumas and ocelots. Even though the response to catnip is fairly widespread among felines, it does not seem to cause a reaction in any other species, with the possible exception of man. Whether a particular cat will respond to catnip at all is genetic. How strongly an individual cat will react is also hereditary. Kittens under two months of age usually won’t react to catnip at all and usually have an aversion to it, although certainly there are exceptions.
Common catnip, officially called Nepeta cataria, is an herbacious perennial herb that is native to Europe, Asia and Africa. It also grows as a weed in some parts of the Midwestern United States and Canada. It is a member of the mint plant family, Lamiaceae. The active ingredient in catnip, nepetalactone, is a volatile substance similar to that contained in turpentine, camphor and the toxic oleoresins of conifer trees. Nepetalactone is an essential oil found in the stems and leaves of Nepeta cataria. Catnip has distinctive aromatic qualities which are very attractive to cats that have the “catnip gene.” The inhaled chemical sets off a chain of amusing, and sometimes aggressive, behavioral changes that have been described as “sexual,” “playful” and sometimes “hallucinatory.” The cats will sniff, lick and chew on the plant (or whatever toy its leaves and stems are inside of). They will paw at it, rub against it, bite it, bat it, shake it, toss it, roll on top of it and jump over it. They may dart back and forth, stare into space or race around in a frantic frenzy. They often lay on their back holding a catnip-filled toy with their front paws while kicking at it with their back ones. They may purr, salivate, meow, hiss or even growl, especially at other cats. Aggression seems to be more common in cats that eat fresh or dried catnip, although sometimes those cats act especially quiet. The actual “high” that a cat experiences in response to catnip rarely lasts longer than 10 or 15 minutes. After that, there seems to be point of satiation, which usually lasts for several hours.
There are several theories about why exposure to catnip causes most cats to rub, run and roll around with such intense and uncontrollable happiness. These behaviors are thought to be a reaction to smelling the nepetalactone contained in the catnip leaves and stems. Cats eat or chew on catnip because that bruises the leaves and stems, releasing more of the essential oils. Experts claim that cats can smell one part nepetalactone to one billion parts air. Because some of the behaviors of cats under the influence of catnip mimic those of feline courtship, some authorities suspect that the active ingredient in catnip stimulates a part of the brain related to sexual activity. Other people speculate that catnip stimulates a pleasure center that is not involved with sexual behavior. Since catnip is biochemically related to marijuana and other so-called psychedelic or hallucinatory drugs, another theory suggests that a cat’s response to catnip may be similar to that experienced by people using those drugs.
Like many herbs, catnip also has medicinal and culinary uses. Tea made from its dried leaves and flowers is said to help sooth sore throats and reduce coughing. Oil extracted from catnip has been used as a natural mosquito repellant.