Pet Talk

Q. Why does my cat love catnip so much? What is it and is it safe to give it to him?

A. Catnip is a member of the mint family, which is native to Europe, Asia and Africa. The plant was brought to North America by settlers and nowadays is popular in herb gardens and grows widely as a weed.

The active ingredient that causes a reaction in some cats is an essential oil called nepetalactone, which can be found in the leaves and stems of the plant. It only takes one or two sniffs of that wondrous oil before susceptible felines are licking, chewing and rolling head over tail in kitty bliss. When a cat eats catnip, he is not necessarily enjoying the taste. By biting the leaves he is releasing more of the nepetalactone. It doesn’t take much, experts claim cats can smell one part nepetalactone to one billion parts air.

Researchers aren’t sure why cats react so strongly to catnip. The reaction appears to start when a cat sniffs the oils from the catnip. Chemicals in the oil travel through the tissue in their nose and into their brain, where it produces a pleasure-inducing experience. It is thought that catnip mimics happy pheromones and stimulates the receptors in the brain that respond to those pheromones, which then lead to bouts of energetic euphoria or laidback laziness. Usually these sessions last about 10 minutes, after which the cat loses interest. It may take as long as two hours for him to respond to catnip again.

The catnip reaction can also be seen in big cats and is used by some zoos to provide stimulation and environmental enrichment.

Interestingly, an estimated 50 percent of cats don’t respond to catnip at all. It is an inherited sensitivity and if the feline didn’t get the gene, he simply won’t care about catnip. The trait doesn’t emerge until a cat is between three and six months old and until then a kitten will not have a response.

Catnip is considered non-addictive and completely harmless to felines. Sounds like your kitty is one of the lucky ones who is able to enjoy the pleasure catnip can induce.

Sally Salopek is the owner and operator of Attend-A-Pet pet sitting services in northern Door County. She has also worked professionally with animals in health care, pet grooming, training, wildlife rehab and rescue. Send your pet-related questions to her at [email protected].