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The chemistry of catnip

Set out catnip for the kitties and they'll do everything from bounce off the walls to mellow out. Not all cats respond to it, but if they do, it's funny.

Radio interview source: Narda Robinson, DVM, Colorado State University

 
Cats are pretty entertaining when they're around catnip. They twitch and flop in it like a fish on the pond bank. What is it about catnip that drives cats so crazy?
 
Narda Robinson is an assistant professor of veterinary medicine at Colorado State University. She says the plant is a member of the mint family, and has been used by humans and animals for centuries. Early settlers in the U-S colonies found catnip sedating and took it as tea. Robinson says catnip has many diverse chemicals that affect the brain in different ways. But cats also seem to sense that there's more to it.
 
"Maybe it's the allure of the psychoactive or psychological benefits, but what it's doing when they roll on it is help guard against parasites," she says. "And then what they do eat, is probably helping them from a digestive standpoint and maybe some internal parasites. So, a multiplicity of benefits."
 
There are packets of oils in catnip leaves, but for cats to react, the oils have to evaporate into the air so they can inhale it. Some cats go bonkers, others aren't into it. Robinson says it's a genetic response.  
 
Researchers don't know exactly what cats are thinking when they feel a reaction, but Robinson says it seems to act like a pheromone, regardless of gender.
 
"As they roll on it and smell it, psychologists have noted that that resembles a cat in heat, or feline estrus behavior," says Robinson. "That to me helps explain why there is this overlap between a cat sort of making overtures at another, or when they become playful, and they might pounce or bat at another individual or an object. But it's just stimulating them in various ways like being in heat would."

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