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Catnip! Cats roll in it, rub their cheeks on it and paw at it... but what is it about this stuff that gets our feline friends caught up in such a frenzy?

Hosted by: Olivia Gordon

Special thanks to Animal Wonders Montana for letting us use a clip from their episode "Catnip Experiment":
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Ever seen a cat dip into some recreational catnip? It usually makes the cat act a little strange. It rubs up against the catnip, rolls in it, and paws it. It's clearly enjoying itself. And all because of a compound that's a little too similar to it's natural biological signals.

Catnip, AKA Nepeta Cataria, is a plant that's a member of the mint family. When cat's react to catnip they're really reacting to an organic molecule released by the plant known as nepetalactone. Nepetalactone is made up of two connected rings of mostly carbons, and the plant uses it to repel insects like mosquitoes, ticks, and mites. But most cats are attracted to the stuff. They'll first start sniffing the catnip, then lick and chew it, sometimes rubbing their cheeks and chin or even their whole body against the leaves. Some cats will meow or even drool. I mean they're obviously into it, but the effects only last about 15 minutes. After that, catnip will have no effect on the cat for anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours.

So what's going on? Well researchers think nepetalactone is similar to a cat's natural pheromones, the molecules it uses to communicate. Once the compound gets into the cat's nose it bonds with the same receptors the pheromones do and the cat's brain gets a signal that basically says lots of pheromones over here. The catnip stimulates three main areas of the cat's brain; the olfactory bulb which processes scent, the amygdala which is involved in emotions and decisions, and the hypothalamus which is in charge of sexual response among other things.

The last one helps explain why cats exposed to catnip will often roll on the ground like a female cat in heat. It's also probably why kittens don't usually respond to catnip until they're sexually mature, when they're around six months old, but not every cat does respond to catnip. Only about fifty to seventy percent of cats do.

It's genetic, and scientists are still looking to identify the gene involved and learn more about what exactly is going on in the cat's brain when it's reacting to catnip. Some big cats like lions and jaguars also respond to catnip but other animals don't use the same pheromones or have the same receptors so catnip doesn't affect them, and it's not just catnip other plants will also attract cats probably for similar reasons. They produce compounds that act like cat pheromone, silver vine, for example produces a cat pheromone like molecule called actinidine.

In general these cat attracting plants seem to be perfectly safe for cats. They aren't addictive but a cat that's often exposed to the stuff can become less sensitive to it, so if your kitty likes catnip it's totally okay for them to indulge once in a while.

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Hank: ...that comes up to you and it starts to look at you seem happy purring and then try to make biscuits out of your body.