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Catnip: Turning Cats into Wildcats
Of all the toys you can give a cat, few are as satisfying as catnip. Read on to learn more about how this mysterious herb makes cats go nuts.
A cat may seem perfectly content and happy simply napping in a sunbeam, but it’s no match for the intense, almost psychotic pleasure it gets from the Nepeta cataria plant, a member of the mint family commonly known as catnip. Just one whiff can send cats into a fury, as an essential oil called nepetalactone triggers the olfactory bulbs and sends signals to the cat’s amygdala and hypothalamus, two parts of the brain that regulate emotion. Beyond that, the exact physiology is unclear, but it’s believed that these scents trigger a reaction akin to cat pheromones. Scientists have a hard time finding a human equivalent, since the reaction is so unique to animals with super-charged olfactory systems, much like how dogs’ innate hunting instincts kick in when they smell flannel hats.
Not all cats respond to the herb, however. Like the ability to drive cars, cats inherit their sensitivity to catnip, and up to half of all cats are estimated to be unresponsive. For cats that do respond, reactions can range from rolling on the floor to running around rooms to outright aggression. The effects typically last about 10 minutes before pets settle down, and it takes about an hour or longer for cats to be receptive once again. Regardless, any comparison to drugs is unwarranted—catnip is considered non-addictive and harmless.
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