Catnip is a perennial herb belonging to the mint family Labiatae. Catnip is known in scientific nomenclature as “Nepeta cataria”. The plant is a weed-like mint that is now native in North America and Canada after being introduced from its native Mediterranean soil. ¬Given to the right cat, catnip can cause an amazing reaction! The cat will rub it, roll over it, kick at it, and generally go nuts for several minutes. Then the cat will lose interest and walk away. Two hours later, the cat may come back and have exactly the same response. Because there really isn’t any scent that causes this sort of reaction in humans, catnip is hard for us to understand. However, it is not an uncommon behavior in animals that rely heavily on their noses. For example, there are many scents that will trigger intense hunting behavior in dogs, and other scents will cause dogs to stop in their tracks and roll all over the scent.
Although no one knows exactly what happens in the cat’s brain, it is known that the plant terpenoid nepetalactone is the main chemical constituent of the essential oil in catnip that acts as the feline attractant and triggers the response. The response to this chemical is mediated through the olfactory system. This chemical is thought to mimic the effects of a pheromone to cause a variety of behaviors. Cats detect it through their olfactory epithelium, not through their vomeronasal organ. At the olfactory epithelium, the nepetalactone binds to one or more olfactory receptors and apparently, it somehow kicks off a stereotypical pattern in cats that are sensitive to the chemical. Large cats like lions and tigers can be sensitive to it as well. The reaction to catnip only lasts a few minutes. Then the cat acclimates to it, and it can take an hour or two away from catnip for the cat to “reset.” Then, the same reaction can occur again. Very young and senior cats do not respond as much, or at all, to catnip. Also, 10-30% of the cat population does not respond to catnip at all, at any age. This is because the reactions to catnip are hereditary. Some cats are genetically “programmed” to respond to catnip, some aren’t. Cats are unique in their response to catnip, and the response can be very dramatic in some cats - rolling, licking, rubbing, drooling, jumping, running, growling. Other cats appear to become very sedate after exposure. As mentioned above, up to 30% of the cat population does not respond at all to catnip. In any case, for all of the sometimes entertaining behaviors observed, catnip is completely nontoxic to cats.
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