Vet Blog

The Effects of Catnip on Cats

January 22, 2020

Our sense of smell can be magical-like the scent of early spring lilacs; life-saving-like the smell of smoke; or just delicious-like bread baking in the oven.

But we also often take our sense of smell for granted or become resentful of the stinky moments, like potty-training a puppy or a young child.

Like it is for us, smell is an important sense for cats because it helps them understand the world around them. This is why catnip has such a profound influence on some cats. At Animal Care Center in Castle Pines, we get a lot of questions about catnip from our cat parents. To understand the effects of catnip on your cat, we must first look at how their sense of smell works!

Olfaction in Cats

Olfaction, or the sense of smell, is actually a fairly complex process when we stop to consider where a smell travels when it leaves our nose and travels to our brain. This complicated roadway includes stops in our limbic system, where implications can range from annoying, impactful, or even therapeutic.

Our feline friends share our appreciation for olfaction in that they rely on odor to communicate with one another and gather information about the environment. The nose of a cat is around one thousand times more sensitive than ours and their brains have a large area devoted to olfaction. They even have a second olfactory detection system, called the vomeronasal organ, making them far more sensitive to subtleties. This sometimes makes it difficult for us to fully comprehend what drives our cats' seemingly unpredictable behavior. One context in which we can appreciate the impact of olfaction on our cats is the consideration of Nepeta Cataria, better known to most of us as catnip.

What Is Catnip?

Catnip is a member of the mint family, along with half of the other common spices we use in our kitchen. There are over 3500 members of the mint family, and if you take a pinch of catnip, lemon balm, chamomile, and add hot water and a dollop of honey, you can have a bit of sweet heaven that is said to soothe indigestion. So apart from tasting great in tea, catnip is reputed as having a therapeutic value in treating nausea, anxiety, depression, insomnia, congestion, as well as gastric upset. Its impact comes from volatile oils which can restore balance to multiple organ systems.

The Effects of Catnip

This aromatic oil called nepetalactone also reaches the brain's limbic system, which governs emotion and memory. In our kitties, as these oils reach the limbic parts of the brain, we can see a wide variety of behaviors ranging from flamboyant sniffing and licking, chewing, rubbing, and rolling behaviors-to sitting still in a Sphinx-like pose for an extended period of time.

Whether it is fresh catnip from your garden, a pinch of dried catnip from a container, or a catnip cigar or banana that gives your kitty big eyes and the urge to race around the living room at break-neck speeds, most kitties seem to embrace this olfactory event with enthusiasm. In one study, when kitties were offered a smorgasbord of smell choices ranging from gerbil scent to other mint scents to catnip, it was Nepeta Cataria that repeatedly won the kitty favorite award. Although the majority of cats embrace catnip, there is a smaller percentage of cats that seem oblivious to its appeal.

In veterinary medicine, an appreciation for the power of feline olfaction is being harnessed using pheromones to mitigate behavioral disorders caused by fear and anxiety. Because we humans are so visually reliant, it can be difficult for us to imagine what the world is like for cats that experience smells, sounds, and sensations so differently than we do. But maybe if we pause for just a minute and give our kitties a pinch of Nepeta Cataria, we might better see the world through their eyes. Or better yet, we might just close our eyes and stop to smell the catnip.

Give Us a Call!

If you have any amusing stories about the effects of catnip on your cat, please let us know! And be sure to call us to set up an appointment if you have any additional questions about your pets. Animal Care Center of Castle Pines is your multi-service veterinary practice for wellness, emergency care, dentistry, surgery, and more.