MadSci Network: Zoology

Re: How does catnip cause the 'playful' behaviors in cats?

Area: Zoology
Posted By: Rick Huneke, D.V.M./M.P.H. Faculty, Division of Comparative Medicine, Washington University School of Medicine
Date: Wed Apr 2 16:44:44 1997

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb belonging to the mint family Labiatae. It is a weed plant that grows in the upper middle United States and lower Canada. It can also be grown in your garden.

When cats smell catnip, they exhibit a range of behaviors that have been broken down into four components.

  1. sniffing
  2. licking and chewing the plant with head shaking
  3. chin and cheek rubbing
  4. head-over roll and body rubbing.(1)
The reaction lasts from 5 to 15 minutes and cannot be evoked again for an hour or more after exposure. Not all cats react to catnip. The behavior has been shown to be inherited as an autosomal dominant gene (Need only one copy of the involved gene to see the effect) (1). Kittens will not show the behavior until they are at least 6 to 8 weeks old. The behavior may not fully develop until the kitten is 3 months old. In fact, catnip produces a response of avoidance in young kittens.

The ingredient of catnip that induces the typical behavior is an essential oil, nepetalactone. The response has been shown to be mediated by the olfactory system.(2) The effects can be moderated by several centrally and peripherially acting drugs, and by several environmental, physiologic and psychologic factors indicating complexity to the overall pattern of behavioral (3) The specific mechanism that triggers these behaviors has not been described.

Catnip has also been used for humans in folk medicine.

Catnip is an interesting plant. It is non-harmful to your cat and seems produce a pleasurable response. It is fun for the cat and fun for the cat's owner to see. If you plant it in your yard, expect the cats to come running!

(1)  Todd, N.  Inheritance of the catnip response in domestic cats.  
Journal of Heredity, 53, 54-56.

(2)  Hart, B., et al.  Analysis of the catnip reaction: mediation by 
olfactory system, not vomeronasal organ.  Behavioral and Neural
Biology, 44, 38-46.

(3)  Hatch, R. C.  Effect of drugs on catnip-induced pleasure behavior 
in cats.  American Journal of Veterinary Research, 33, 143-155.

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