We have all seen a cat in the throes of a catnip high. Rolling around, salivating, vocalizing, these are just some of the ways in which cats respond to contact with this drug-like substance. It is strange to think that a plant could elicit such strong reactions from our feline companions. What is is about this plant that causes cats to go crazy?
Let's back up for a second. To start with, catnip is the dried, crushed leaves of mints in the genus Nepeta. Commonly referred to as catmints, these plants are native to parts of Europe and Asia, though they have been introduced throughout the globe and tend to favor waste places and fields. The main source of catnip comes from Nepeta cataria. Though not a showy plant, it certainly has gained traction throughout the gardening world.
Nepeta cataria is often used as a companion plant by those growing vegetables. It is used to deter insect pests like aphids and squash bugs. Because of this, it is often used as a natural mosquito repellent as well, though research has shown that, at least on human skin, it is not very effective. Like all mints, the volatile compounds that give them their scent are what interests humans the most. One of these compounds, specifically a terpenoid called nepetalactone, is also what drives cats a bit crazy.
It has long been noted that cats are attracted to the bruised leaves of Nepeta cataria. Not all cats respond to catnip though. In fact, sensitivity to catnip is hereditary and is only present in about 70 to 80% of felines. It's not just domestic cats either. Wild cats like tigers and leopards have also shown sensitivity to this chemical. When nepetalactone enters the nasal cavity of a cat, it attaches to special protein receptors, which stimulates sensory neurons.
Through a complex chain of reactions, the hypothalamus responds by stimulating the pituitary gland, which creates a sexual response in the cats brain. In essence, nepetalactone acts as a synthetic cat pheromone. Essentially it makes cats kind of horny. The effects of nepetalactone last for about 10 minutes, after which the cat becomes desensitized for about 30 minutes. Interestingly enough, nepetalactone is also found in the wood of tartarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), which is also used in cat toys.
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