Catnip: The Recreactional Drug for our Feline Friends

Catnip is the only recreational drug that we give to our domestic pets that comes in liquid aerosol and dried plant form. Studies have shown it is non-addictive and safe, and tolerance is not built up over time. It is generally accepted that the reaction is hereditary, and 70% – 80% of cats will show a reaction.

Catnip gives our feline friends up to 10 minutes of intense euphoria; they salivate, roll around on the floor, vocalize, and stretch out – behaviour that is usually associated with a female in heat. After the high, they are seemingly unaffected by anymore introduction of the substance for approximately 30 minutes.

Domestic Cats React to Catnip

The formal term for catnip is Nepeta cataria. Like Salvia (a popular recreational drug for humans) it is a member of the mint family.

Catnips plants contain sterols, acids and tannins, as well as volatile oils; one of which being nepetalactone. This active chemical that causes the elation displayed by ‘high’ cats is in the form of tiny crystals over the plant that when burst are released into the air and binds to the cats nasal tissue receptors. This stimulates parts of the olfactory bulb, which in turn stimulates the amygdala, responsible for mediating mediate emotional and behavioural reponse. Other signals are projected from the olfactory bulb to the hypothalamus, that regulates a variety of activities including emotion and hunger, and creates a ‘sexual response’ through neuroendocrine responses in the pituitary gland. It has been speculated that nepetalactone does this by mimicing the shape of feline pheromones (Behavioral and Neural Biology, July 1985).

Interestingly, this reaction is not only limited to domestic cats. Lions, tigers, and other big cat have shown similar responses.

Big Cats React to Catnip

Humans do not have the same euphoric reaction that felines display, but for centuries we have used catnip in teas, infusions and juices headaches and hysteria and there is evidence to suggest it has diaphoretic and anodyne effects. Smoking catnip has a similar effect to marijuana.


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