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All About Catnip

May 1, 2018

It’s your feline friend’s favorite indulgence—you’ve probably heard of catnip, but how much do you know about this fascinating aspect of our cats’ lives? Here, your Salem, VA veterinarian answers your most common questions on catnip:

What Exactly is Catnip?

Catnip is an herb, categorized in the same plant “family” as mint. It grows in the wild, and is originally from Europe but has since spread all over the world. In a pet store, you’ll find a dried and processed version of the wild plant, which looks almost like dried basil flakes or oregano that you probably have in your spice cabinet.

Raw catnip as described above is the most “potent” form of catnip, but it can also be infused into sprays and included in cat toys.

How Do Cats Respond?

Cats respond to catnip in a variety of ways. Some might run excitedly to and fro for a few minutes, leaping around from the floor onto furniture and back down again. Others will rub their faces or bodies in the area where catnip was sprinkled. Still other cats might simply stretch out on their backs and relax there in a state of bliss. It simply depends on your particular cat!

Why Do Cats Respond?

The oils of the catnip plant contain a chemical substance called nepetalactone, which is what causes the reaction you’ll see when you present your cat with catnip. Nepetalactone causes a chemical reaction in Fluffy’s brain, which many experts liken to an aphrodisiac. It’s possible that catnip causes a kind of sexual response in your cat’s brain!

Why Isn’t My Cat Reacting to Catnip?

Does catnip not seem to have much of an effect on your cat? Don’t worry—your pet is perfectly healthy. You may be surprised to learn that cats actually require a specific gene that is inherited from their parents to feel the effects of catnip. Nearly half of our feline friends don’t possess it!

Is Catnip Harmful?

No, catnip is not harmful to your pet in any way. The chemical reaction that occurs in your cat’s brain does not pose any threat whatsoever, and the effects of catnip will usually wear off after only a few short minutes. Additionally, your cat cannot “overdose” on catnip; it’s perfectly safe to offer the herb to your cat as often as you would like. Curious about catnip’s effects on your feline friend or concerned about potential allergies and skin issues? Explore our ‘Allergies & Dermatology’ services to ensure your pet’s health and happiness.

Our Advice on Catnip

What exactly is catnip, and where does it originate from?

Catnip is an herb belonging to the mint family. Scientifically known as Nepeta cataria, its heart-shaped leaves, and distinctive aroma characterize it. Catnip originated in Europe and has since spread globally. It’s commonly found in gardens and wild areas. The plant’s allure for cats is due to nepetalactone, a compound in its leaves and stems that triggers a typically playful and euphoric response in many cats. Available in various forms like dried flakes and sprays and infused in toys, catnip is a favorite among felines for its stimulating effects.

What causes cats to respond to catnip?

Cats respond to catnip due to a compound in the herb called nepetalactone. This compound interacts with the nasal tissues of cats, stimulating sensory neurons that lead to the brain. The reaction often resembles euphoria or excitement. Nepetalactone mimics feline pheromones, triggering a range of behaviors from playful rolling and frolicking to zesty meowing and purring. Not all cats are affected; sensitivity to catnip is hereditary, with about 50% to 70% of cats showing a noticeable response. The reaction is entirely natural and typically harmless.

Why do some cats not react to catnip at all?

Some cats don’t react to catnip due to genetics. The response to catnip is hereditary, and not all cats inherit the gene that makes them sensitive to the effects of nepetalactone, the active compound in catnip. Approximately 50% to 70% of cats exhibit a response to catnip, while the rest remain indifferent. This genetic trait is random and can be present in cats of any breed or background. The lack of response to catnip is typical and does not indicate any health issue or abnormality in cats that don’t react.

Is catnip harmful to cats in any way?

No, catnip is not harmful to cats. It’s a safe, natural herb that can temporarily induce heightened playfulness or relaxation in many cats. The effects of catnip, caused by the compound nepetalactone, typically wear off within 10 to 30 minutes. Cats self-regulate their exposure to catnip and will usually walk away once they’ve had enough. It’s non-addictive and does not cause any long-term effects on a cat’s health or behavior. However, excessive consumption can occasionally cause mild digestive upset, but this is rare. In moderation, catnip is a harmless and enjoyable treat for most cats.

What is the scientific explanation for a cat’s response to catnip?

The scientific explanation for a cat’s response to catnip lies in the compound nepetalactone, found in the catnip plant. When a cat smells nepetalactone, it binds to nasal receptors that stimulate sensory neurons, leading to the brain’s amygdala and hypothalamus. These brain regions are associated with behavior and emotional responses. The effect often mimics that of feline pheromones, typically triggering behaviors ranging from playful euphoria to relaxation. The response is inherited genetically, and not all cats have receptors sensitive to nepetalactone, explaining why some cats don’t react to catnip.

While you’re learning about ways to entertain and care for your cat, don’t overlook the importance of regular grooming for your canine companions, too. Find out more in our ‘Trimming Your Dog’s Nails’ article. For more information about catnip, call your Salem, VA vet.

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