Is catnip wholesome for my cat? A scientist explains

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There are many valid theories to explain the global appeal of cats, including our obsession with watching videos of them online. When it comes to the sheer entertainment value of cats, however, our fascination probably stems from their endless repertoire of whimsical behaviors.

From being able to “capture” your cat by simply drawing a square around it, to cats who seem to freak out when presented with a cucumber (I don’t condone this activity for cat protection reasons), our feline companions are as entertaining as they are confusing.

When it comes to their seemingly strange reactions to things, their reaction to a humble mint family plant is no exception.

Nepeta cataria, more commonly known as catnip, is a plant native to parts of Europe and Asia known for its feline attracting (and addictive) properties in domestic cats and several other (non-domesticated) cats, including lions, leopards, and jaguars. Reactions to catnip usually include sniffing, licking, biting, rubbing or rolling the plant, shaking the head, drooling, sounding, and even kicking the back of the feet.

Catnip’s status as a kryptonite for cats is due to a specific chemical compound called nepalacatlone, which the plant naturally releases when its leaves or stems are crushed. This chemical is thought to bind to protein receptors in the cat’s nose, which then stimulate sensory neurons, which lead to changes in brain activity.

These mind-altering effects can usually last anywhere from five to 15 minutes, although some cats react much more intensely and longer than others. Interestingly, the ability to respond to catnip is thought to be hereditary, with about one in three adult cats appearing to be immune to its effects.

However, other scientists argue that all cats may have the ability to respond to catnip, but that some are active and others are more passive, with the intensity of responses being influenced by their age, gender, and neuter status.

Is catnip a drug for cats?

Many cats are certainly very attracted to catnip and will actively seek it out in their surroundings. For these reasons, catnip is often used (in its dried form) to encourage cats to use their scratching posts – as opposed to the armrest on our expensive new sofa. It is also often placed in cat toys or planted in gardens as an asset for cats.

In humans, smoking catnip has been reported to induce sensations similar to those of marijuana or LSD. It is possible that cats can have similar effects even though their brains are not exactly the same as ours, so their “trips” may feel slightly different to them.

However, a recent study shows that exposure of cats to nepalactalone leads to an increase in a peptide hormone associated with pleasure. This suggests that catnip might have some pretty powerful kitten feel-good properties.

Interestingly, the authors also found that cats covered in nepalactalol were less likely to be infested with mosquitos. This offers a suitable evolutionary explanation for cats’ innate attraction (and response) to the plant – covering themselves with catnip might feel really good, but it also helps keep those pesky insects at bay.

Is It Cruel Giving Catnip to a Cat?

While there is evidence that catnip has pleasant side effects, not all we like – or at least dressed – is good for us. The increased arousal and altered state of consciousness likely to occur in active responders may not always be a welcome experience.

In situations where cats feel anxious, insecure, or not completely under control, they are more likely to seek sources of safety than stimulation. In these circumstances, the last thing a cat is likely to want is some kind of mind-altering hallucinogenic trip.

While we can certainly enjoy watching their catnip antics, we should think carefully about whether we are doing this for the benefit of the cats or simply for our entertainment. We should also avoid disturbing or attempting to pet an affected cat and, ultimately, cats should always be allowed to say no.

If we are to give catnip to cats, it is best if we place it in a quiet place away from their core areas of the house – avoid places where they normally eat and sleep – and let them decide if they get a hit on their own want time.

This article was originally published on The Conversation by. released Lauren Finka of Nottingham Trent University. Read the original article here.