There are few things more entertaining than seeing a cat roll around in catnip and then spend the next half hour zoning out or playing like all of their toys are a new and interesting thing. Seeing your cat act silly in the presence of catnip may have led you to wonder what exactly it is about catnip that causes cats to act this way. After all, if you spill a bunch of basil in the floor, your cat is highly unlikely to act the way it does when catnip is involved. So, what is it that makes catnip so special to cats?
Why Do Cats Love Catnip?
The active compound in catnip is a chemical called nepetalactone, which impacts cats for a few reasons. The primary reason is that nepetalactone is similar to pheromones released by cats when they are ready to breed, causing catnip to sexually stimulate cats and leading to an overall sense of euphoria. This effect may be less pronounced in cats that have been spayed or neutered, but that isn’t always the case. In fact, catnip has a notable effect on about two-thirds of cats, regardless of whether they’re intact or not.
Interestingly, domestic cats aren’t the only felines that love catnip. Big cats like jaguars, tigers, and bobcats also seem to love catnip. While they may enjoy the pheromone mimicking quality of catnip, there are also two important evolutionary reasons that cats may love catnip so much, and especially why they love rolling in catnip. For cats in the wild, the pest repellent effects of catnip would help reduce parasitic infestations from certain insects and mites. Parasites don’t just cause discomfort, but they can also negatively impact the health of an animal, making parasite control necessary to maintaining health.
The other possible reason for cats enjoying a good roll in catnip is the potential for the oils in the catnip plant to help mask the cat’s natural odors. For a cat that relies on hunting for all of its meals, something that masks the scent of the cat can be the difference between a good meal and starvation. This means that some cats, including big cats, may enjoy rolling in catnip because of its ability to disguise their scent beneath the herbal scent of the plant’s oils.
What is Catnip?
Catnip’s binomial name is Nepeta cataria and it belongs to the Lamiaceae family. It’s native to parts of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, and it has become naturalized in New Zealand, North America, and northern Europe. Catnip is sometimes referred to as catmint, catwort, and catswort. The Lamiaceae family also includes many common herbs, including basil, mint, sage, thyme, oregano, and lavender. Aside from being so beloved by cats, catnip has also been used as an ingredient in herbal teas and medicine due to its efficacy as a relaxant.
Catnip plants are perennial and can grow large and bushy. Its tendency to reproduce quickly and easily means it is considered a weed by many people. However, it produces small flowers that are pink or purple and white and are quite fragrant, making them appealing to pollinators like bees and butterflies. It also has some insect repelling properties, making it unappealing to pest insects. For this reason, catnip is sometimes used in gardens as a companion plant to pumpkins, broccoli, squashes, beets, and potatoes.
What are Some Catnip Alternatives?
At this time, there’s only one other plant that is known to have a similar impact on cats, and that is a plant called silvervine. Silvervine contains compounds similar to nepetalactones, so it may impact some cats the same way that catnip does. Silvervine has also proven to be attractive to some cats that aren’t interested in catnip, but it isn’t guaranteed that your cat will love it. Other plants that have shown promise in causing catnip-like effects in cats include valerian root, Tatarian honeysuckle, and Indian nettle.
There is some true chemistry in the science behind catnip’s effect on cats. Interestingly, catnip has little to no effect when consumed, and it has the strongest impact when absorbed through the nasal mucosa. This means that catnip treats and supplements may not have the same effect in your cat as catnip powder, catnip plants, or catnip-stuffed toys. If your cat doesn’t love catnip, don’t be concerned. It’s common for cats to not love catnip, so you can try alternatives to see if your cat takes an interest. However, the majority of cats will show interest in catnip and would love nothing more than to roll in a pile of catnip for half an hour.
Featured Image Credit: Kassel95, Pixabay