Medical News Today: Catnip: What do we know about the feline drug?

In his book Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances, psychopharmacologist Ronald Siegel estimates that around “70% of domestic cats respond to catnip,” and that those who do have reached sexual maturity. Cats reach sexual maturity at around 6 months of age.

Cats who react to catnip will sniff the plant, or any toys that contain it, and then start chewing on it. Following this, they may start rubbing their head against the plant or toy, and then roll or flip from side to side.

“Both of [my cats] love it, and it makes them go crazy,” one reader told Medical News Today. “[The female] likes to lick it, then she attacks the toy it’s on, often adopting the bunny leg attack. [The male] goes more soppy with it, often rolling around with the toy in his paws,” they said.

Although in most cases, when it does affect them, catnip stimulates cats in a pleasurable way, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals deem it “toxic to cats.” They warn that some domestic felines may experience adverse reactions after coming into contact with this plant. These effects can include vomiting and diarrhea, as well as states of sedation.

Some cats may even become aggressive when they encounter the plant. Another reader told MNT that she avoids giving her cat any catnip for this very reason. “[My cat] just gets a bit like she wants to fight me [and] starts punching my foot,” they said.

For the many cats that respond well to catnip, Siegel notes, this may be “an example of animal addiction to pleasure behavior.” Both male and female cats respond to catnip in a way that is reminiscent of sexual arousal among these felines.

Because of these similarities, some researchers have suggested that the plant may once have been a timely and natural enhancer of reproductive behaviors.

These displays have prompted naturalists to speculate that catnip once served the evolutionary function in the wild of preparing cats for sex, a natural springtime aphrodisiac.”

Ronald Siegel

He explains that the molecules that carry catnip’s scent, called terpenoids, are what causes the reaction. Catnip features a specific type of terpenoid called nepetalactones. These molecules, Siegel explains, can be toxic. However, they are usually harmless in the quantity in which they are present in catnip.

Cats absorb nepetalactones by sniffing the catnip. The molecules then bind to olfactory (smell) receptors in the nose, which send additional signals to the amygdala, which are two small clusters in the mammal brain. These are linked with both the regulation of emotions and some sexual behaviors.