If you have a cat, you definitely have given your furry friend some catnip before, causing a seemingly “high” type of reaction that involves random bursts of energy, intense rubbing, rolling around, and licking. Every cat is different, but if there’s one thing that can be agreed upon amongst all cat owners, it’s that this random herb inexplicably causes a very intense and dramatic reaction in our pets. But what is the actual science behind catnip? Are our animals actually getting high simply from rubbing on a sock filled with it? What even is it?
According to Live Science’s Online Magazine, the herb of catnip is in the same family as rosemary, oregano, sage, and basil, and is closest to mint, biologically. Catnip itself holds a chemical compound known as nepetalactone; this is what’s the most responsible for the catnip effect. There are other compounds in catnip that, chemically, are very similar to nepetalactone and can also emphasize the effect cats have when rubbing on the herb, however, nepetalactone is the strongest of them all.
“Cats are attracted to the odor of nepetalactone, which binds to receptors in their noses and often produces behavior that appears euphoric. Other compounds in catnip affect neurotransmitters, resulting in inhibition of central nervous system activity,” said Dr. Bruce Kornreich, an associate director for education and outreach with the Feline Health Center at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Speaking from personal experience, as most of you reading can also most likely relate to, it’s safe to say that when our cats experience the euphoric responses induced by catnip, it really just looks like they’re high on drugs to us. When human beings experiences drug coaxed highs, dopamine, or the chemical that makes us happy, is released at a high rate in our brains, causing the high itself. In cats, it’s more difficult to know what exactly is happening in their brains and what chemicals are being released or contained to evoke such a wild and random reaction.
Some studies have shown that when cats were given the chemical compound naloxone, which blocks opioid receptors in the central nervous system, cat’s have a much more minimal reaction to the catnip, and some cats were recorded to have no reaction at all. This potentially suggests that opioid receptors in the cat’s brain are most likely involved in the process of the “high.”
“A person who takes an opioid and has a euphoric effect from it; that can be blocked by naloxone. If a cat has behaviors that can be blocked by naloxone, might one of those behaviors — in the cat’s perception — be euphoria? It’s possible, but we don’t know for sure,” Kornreich said.
Taken after zookeepers treated their Siberian Tigers to large sacks full of catnip
Other studies have suggested that the nepetalactone compound also released a scent that is similar to that of pheromones. So when a cat is aggressively rubbing on whatever toy the catnip is in, it can be because it is reacting as it would if a mate was around. It’s also important to note that the catnip reaction is genetic. According to Cat Behavior Associates, one third of all cats lack the gene that evoke a reaction from catnip, and cats can also be trained to have an aversion to the plant itself if exposed to it when they’re still a kitten, however, it’s been reported that most cats aren’t able to have any sort of reaction to the plant until they’re at least six months. This is due to the fact that their brains aren’t fully developed enough to process the chemical reaction catnip induces.
Additionally, cats wild relatives have also been shown on record to have the same reaction to catnip. Wildlife reserve employee’s have stated that they sometimes use the herb to lure their wild cat residents into spaces when they need check ups or need to be taken out of their enclosure for whatever reason. This fact is what helped lead scientists to understand the hereditary aspect of catnip. While we may not be able to fully understand all of the science behind our cats reaction to this herb, we do know that it’s safe, cats enjoy it, and it induces euphoria, so for now, keep filling up old socks with catnip and let your cat have a fun time.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.