Catnip is one of the most well-known cat toy additives. Cats playing with catnip often start acting very funny, rolling around with the toy and pressing their face into it. But why do cats exhibit this behavior? Read on to learn all about catnip.
Catnip is actually a kind of mint, native to the Africa, Europe, and Asia tri-continental area. From there, catnip has spread, and it can be found all over the world. Today, there are over 250 different species of catnip which are adapted to different climates and have slightly different characteristics.
A catnip plant grows to about two and a half feet tall, and has heart shaped leaves protruding from a tough stem. When it flowers, the blossoms are pink, purple, blue, or white, depending on the species. While catnip in the wild can be slightly effective on cats, a catnip plant does not usually have as strong an effect.
Instead, to get the full effect, catnip toys are filled with catnip leaves that have been dried out and then crushed into a powder. Because all of the water has been removed, this powder contains a concentrated version of a naturally occurring oil in catnip called nepetalactone.
Nepetalactone has little effect on humans, but cats can easily sense and enjoy it. This is because this chemical stimulates a special type of smell sensors in cats that detect pheromones. Pheromones are a big part of how cats communicate with each other and learn by sniffing the environment. If you have ever seen a cat sniffing around the carpet, chances are they were following a pheromone trail.
Nepetalactone interacts with a cat’s pheromone receptors in a way that causes a change in their brain chemistry. Cats exposed to catnip experience euphoric responses that are chemically similar to the way human brains react to hallucinogenic drugs. Unlike many human drug reactions, however, the catnip high is short lived. Usually within a few minutes, a cat will calm down from catnip exposure and lose interest for at least an hour.
Not all cats are sensitive to catnip; only about 65-70% of cats appear to show an interest in it. Typically, cats that are very young or old are less likely to be affected.
Catnip toys are great fun to watch cats play with. Cats enjoy catnip toys because of the natural oils in the plant reacting with their pheromone receptors. This high is similar to drugs in humans, but is relatively short lived and harmless.