Why Does Catnip Make Cats Go Crazy?
Oh, catnip. You're a wonderful thing. Especially for us humans because we get to laugh at the silly things our cats will do when they get a whiff of you!
But in all seriousness, what IS it that makes catnip so desirable for cats?
Is it like a drug?
How Catnip Makes Cats Crazy
Catnip belongs to the plant species Nepeta cataria, and is a member of the mint family. The same component that makes catnip smell minty - the volatile oils - is the component responsible for its effect on cats.
When a cat sniffs the oils from the catnip, chemicals from the plant travel through the tissue in their nose and into their brain. Then, the chemicals in the oil bind to receptors in the brain that affect sensory neurons (these types of neurons help control how the cat perceives things around it). Because of that, inhaling catnip's scent can actually cause cats to hallucinate and appear “high" to us.
Hungry for a more detailed scientific explanation?
I'll let Roma Turner, a veterinarian of 25 years explain.“Nepetalactone, one of catnip's volatile oils, enters the cat's nasal tissue, where it is believed to bind to protein receptors that stimulate sensory neurons. These cells, in turn, provoke a response in neurons in the olfactory bulb, which project to several brain regions including the amygdala (two neuronal clusters* in the midbrain that mediate emotional responses to stimuli) and the hypothalamus, the brain's "master gland" that plays a role in regulating everything from hunger to emotions.”
This is why after sniffing catnip, our cats may act a little loopy, run into things or just run around crazy. They see the world around them, but it’s not processing as it should because the smell is affecting their brain cells!
Interesting Fact: Catnip is also similar to one of the substances found in tomcat urine. Cats like the smell of this urine, so it could be another reason why they are drawn to catnip. Kinda gross, but interesting at the same time!
My Cat Doesn't Seem to Like It. What Gives?
It's true. Some cats actually dislike the odor of catnip. My old roommate’s cat is a testament to that. In fact, she rather despised it. When my roomie bought a huge tin of catnip, the cat took one smell of it and crinkled her nose in disgust. She would always run away from the catnip.
Apparently, gender can play a role in whether a cat responds to catnip. Males are actually more likely to enjoy the smell than females. (Well, that explains it, my roomie’s cat was a girl!)
ALSO - even if your kitten might some day like the smell, they normally won’t respond to it until they are at least six months old.
Wait. If Catnip Is a Drug For Cats, Could It Be Hurting Them?!
If you are wondering whether catnip is harmful to your cat, don’t worry! According to many scientists, catnip is not harmful to cats. In fact, many cat behaviorists say it's a great tool for training cats! Mostly, the recommended use is an incentive to play with toys or go to certain areas, but since my roommate’s cat didn’t like catnip, she trained her cat a little differently with it. She used catnip as a way to punish her cat. Anytime her cat would scratch the couch, she would bring out the catnip. Once that cat saw the tin, she stopped right in her tracks!