Does your cat go crazy for catnip? Approximately 70-80% of cats are affected by catnip to some degree. What is it about this plant that provokes such a strong reaction in cats? Here’s a quick look at the science of catnip.
Catnip, also called catmint, is a member of the mint family. The scientific name of catnip is Nepeta cataria. There are many varieties of Nepeta, which are popular with gardeners for their lavender/blue flowers that attract pollinators.
But why is it so attractive to cats? The chemical compound nepetalactone found in catnip is the key! The function of nepetalactone is to protect the plant by repelling herbivorous insects. Its appeal to cats is an unintended side-effect, caused by its similarity to pheromones (chemicals that cats use to send messages to each other).
Common feline catnip behaviors include sniffing, licking, chewing, chin and cheek rubbing, and rolling and stretching. The effects of catnip last for around ten minutes.
Both domestic and wild cats respond to catnip. A cat’s responsiveness is determined by genetics. If one of your cat’s parents passes on the “catnip” gene, then your cat will respond to it as well.
Kittens will not respond to catnip until they are around 6-8 weeks old, leading researchers to believe that nepetalactone most closely mimics sex pheromones.
Besides being a kitty mood enhancer, the catnip plant has also been used by humans in herbal medicine and tea for many years.