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Cats Love This More Than Just About Anything — Makes Them Giddy With Joy

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • A new study reveals how the cat-attracting substance in catnip, nepetalactone, is made
  • Nepetalactone, a type of chemical called a terpene, is produced in a unique two-step process from microscopic glands on the underside of catnip leaves
  • Nepetalactone appears to affect the regions of the feline brain related to play, hunger, and predatory and sexual behavior, triggering the uninhibited behaviors displayed by kitties under the influence of catnip
  • For catnip non-responders, there are other herbs to consider, especially silver vine

If you're owned by a cat or just have a general fondness for felines, you've no doubt heard of catnip (also called catmint). You may even have first-hand knowledge of the intoxicating effect this very ordinary-looking plant has on susceptible cats.

Study Reveals the Cat-Attracting Chemical in Catnip Is Produced in an Unusual Two-Step Process Never Before Observed

Scientists still don't know exactly why catnip drives some kitties wild, but they've identified the substance that causes the effect. It's nepetalactone — a type of chemical called a terpene. Recently, researchers at the John Innes Centre in the U.K. have also learned how catnip plants produce nepetalactone:

"This simple, small molecule is part of an unusual chain of events, not previously seen by chemists," according to a John Innes Centre press release.

"Usually in plants, for example peppermint, terpenes are formed by a single enzyme. … [T]he researchers report that in catnip terpenes are formed in a two-step process; an enzyme activates a precursor compound which is then grabbed by a second enzyme to produce the substance of interest.

This two-step process has previously never been observed, and the researchers also expect something similar is occurring in the synthesis of anti-cancer drugs vincristine and vinblastine from [Madagascar] periwinkle, Catharanthus roseus, and elsewhere in olive and snapdragon."1

In their study, published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, the researchers describe how nepetalactone is produced in microscopic glands on the underside of the leaves of catnip plants.2

cat lying in catnip plant

In addition, the study identified three newly discovered enzymes with unusual activity. The researchers hope a better understanding of how nepetalactones are produced can help them learn how plants synthesize other chemicals as well.

Catnip Appears to Influence Areas of the Feline Brain Related to Play, Hunger, Predation and Sexual Behavior

So we have a name for the magical chemical in catnip, and we now also know the unique way it's produced, but we still don't know exactly why it does what it does to our feline friends. "A cat reacts to catnip with ecstasy and unbounded joy," Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist who runs the Behavior Clinic at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, writes in PetPlace.3

Behaviors people have witnessed after offering catnip to kitties include nosing, chewing and batting the catnip container while drooling buckets; shaking their heads; rolling around and rubbing their bodies on the floor; losing their balance, falling and stumbling around; repetitively kicking their hind legs; and showing excitement and chasing behavior.

Dodman offers a few possible explanations for all this exaggerated feline activity. He believes that since some of the behaviors are playful in nature, catnip puts kitties in the mood to have fun.

Chewing and drooling seem to be associated with getting food, while rolling and rubbing appear to be sexual behaviors. Tandem hind leg kicking could be a predatory behavior, along with chasing. Ultimately, it seems catnip may inspire overt expressions of several natural feline behaviors, almost as if it allows kitties to temporarily let go of their inhibitions.

"This implies a general excitatory effect on areas of the brain, particularly those centered in and around the hypothalamus, the region that controls appetitive, predatory and sexual behavior," Dodman writes.

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Catnip May Help Feuding Felines Call a Truce

According to Dodman, research suggests that not only does the nepetalactone molecule have an opioid shape, it also has an opium-like action, meaning it stimulates opioid receptors in the brain in the same way morphine does.

When a susceptible kitty gets hold of catnip and absorbs the nepetalactone, his pleasure centers (opioid receptors) in the brain are activated and he switches from Grumpy Cat to Goofy. But although catnip appears to make some cats "high," it is an entirely harmless and non-addictive herb.

It may even help smooth the way in multi-cat households, for example, with fighting felines. Kitties who don't get along may view each other in a friendlier light while under the influence of catnip — and the ceasefire has been known to hold after the effects of the nepetalactone wear off. In addition, catnip has pain-relieving properties that may be helpful for some kitties, similar to the effects of marijuana in some people.

Alternatives for Kitties Who Don't Respond to Catnip

In a study published in 2017, researchers exposed 100 domestic kitties to powdered or ground silver vine, Tatarian honeysuckle, valerian root and catnip to observe their reaction.4

The plants were presented to the cats in their own living environment a minimum of five times in random order. There was at least a five-minute washout period between scents to allow the kitties to clear each scent from their noses before moving on to the next. The researchers were looking for reactions similar to those seen in cats susceptible to catnip, and found that the cats responded positively to all four plants:

  • 79 percent responded to silver vine
  • 68 percent responded to catnip
  • 53 percent responded to Tatarian honeysuckle
  • 47 percent responded to valerian root

There was no difference in response rates between male and female cats, but younger kitties had more intense reactions. The four plants were also analyzed to determine levels of five known or suspected active compounds that cause the behaviors and were found to have significantly varying levels of the five tested compounds. Additional observations:

  • It was the fruit galls of the silver vine plant that drew the most intense response, though some of the cats also responded to the wood of the plant
  • Almost 75 percent of the catnip non-responders responded to silver vine, and about 33 percent responded to Tatarian honeysuckle
  • The level of nepetalactone was highest in the catnip and only present at negligible levels in the other plants
  • Silver vine contained the highest concentrations of all other compounds tested

The researchers concluded that olfactory enrichment for kitties may have great potential. They noted that silver vine powder from dried fruit galls and catnip were most appealing, and silver vine and Tatarian honeysuckle appear to be good alternatives for kitties who don't respond to catnip.