Cats. They’re an Internet sensation as well as a loved household pet. Adored by many and feared by some. Cat culture has reached its all time peak, with grumpy cat memes and the crazy cat ladies of the world now being crowned queens. We would be lying if we said that we’d never taken immense joy out of watching our cuddly friends fall into the haunting trance of catnip, that turns even the most stubborn of felines into a hilarious mess.
Cat nip, botanical name Nepeta cataria, is a white flowered herb of the mint family that can grow to be up to 3 feet high, an achievement that would certainly get yourself a name amongst the cat cartel.
But does it really get cats high and if so, how does it achieve this affect?
It turns out that catnip is covered in microscopic bulbs that contain the chemical nepetalactone, which has been hypothesized to mimic the shape of pheromones, the ‘feel-good’ chemicals involved in sexual attraction. Pheromones normally bind to the nasal receptors of the vomeronasal organ (an olfactory or ‘smell’ sense organ) found in the cat’s nose.
Once this reaction has taken place the sensory neurons are stimulated, resulting in a response in the olfactory bulb neurons located in the forebrain of vertebrates, which receives neural input about odours detected in the environment and sends these signals to the brain. These nerve fibers project to many other areas of the brain including the amygdala which integrates this sensory information, and the hypothalamus which has a role in hormone regulation through the pituitary gland, which produces the sex hormones that are involved in creating a ‘sexual response’. Both the amygdala and the hypothalamus also play a role in emotional response.
This may explain why most cats become a drooling mess after a small dose of catnip. Although cats may appear to be displaying an uncontrollable frenzy of ecstasy, the behavior shown is actually very stereotypical amongst all cats, including big cats such as lions and tigers. Examples of this behavior include rolling around whilst rubbing the source of the catnip, as well as exhibiting playful hunting behavior before being replaced by a feeling of calm that may even mean that you can actually give that temperamental tabby a belly rub.
Interestingly, this repeated behavior is only found to be absent in about 20% of cats, which could mean that this stereotyped response is a genetic trait passed through the generations and was found in a 1962 study to be inherited in an dominant manner.
Most phenotypes (what you can observe as a result of genes) that are seen in many members of a species and are therefore said to be conserved, are often kept as they serve a functional purpose to the animals survival, which begs the question- does the response to catnip actually provide a form of adaptation? Unfortunately there isn’t that much literature out there attempting to answer this question, but the general consensus is that an evolutionary significance of this trait is yet to be discovered.
So the answer is yes, catnip does effectively get cats ‘high’, but are any other animals affected by it?
You might be thinking that if cats can get a ‘high’ from catnip that we humans may have found a legal alternative to cannabis, however this is not exactly the case. In the past humans have smoked the catnip plant and have claimed to have experienced hallucinations, but human brains are physiologically different to a cat’s, therefore the reaction from humans isn’t as much of a ‘high’ as the response observed in cats, so if your housemate is rolling around on the floor it’s unlikely that catnip is the culprit.
For centuries, humans have actually used catnip as a therapeutic tool in alternative medicine for ailments such as migraines, the relief of muscle aches, aiding digestion, helping with insomnia and even used in a paste to reduce swelling associated with inflammatory conditions such as arthritis or skin surface injuries. If you’re looking for a mild sedative, apparently catnip can be brewed in the form of a herbal tea. Groovy.
The physician Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689), who became known as the English ‘Hippocrates’ upon his publishing of a medical textbook that was used for a whopping two centuries, stated that catnip’s effect were due to its "strong and noisome smell, to recall the exorbitant and deserting Spirits to their proper Stations". To those less poetically inclined, this is a rather unnerving way to explain that catnip’s odour appeared to have a soothing effect to treat those suffering from hysteria and even insanity.
On a less extreme note, it was found in a 2002 study that catnip was 10x more effective as a mosquito repellant than commonly used DEET (N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide). However, research conducted in 2005 found that catnip oil was the most effective spatial repellant, whereas DEET was the more effective contact-repellant in the three mosquito species studied.
The cat lovers among you will be glad to know that there doesn’t appear to be any negative health effects of catnip and if your cat was to eat a portion (because the 10 portions of food they constantly beg you for clearly isn’t enough), it would merely act as a sedative or cause vomiting to get it out of their system. So now that the cat is out of the bag, you can impress all of your cat-crazed friends with your newfound neurological knowledge of catnip. Finally for all of those times you’ve wondered why your cat loves catnip more than you, at least now you have a small insight into that mad moggie’s brain.