By Sarah Probst
University of Illinois
College of Veterinary Medicine
"Has your cat ever been around catnip?" my roommate and veterinary school classmate Kristi McCullough asked me.
"Just once and she wasn't too interested," I answered.
"Watch this." Kristi got out a plastic bag with dried catnip leaves
inside. Her cat, Shadee, skidded around the corner and into the kitchen.
Alice, followed more slowly, taking prim little steps. Shadee flung himself at Kristi's feet begging with intense meows. The dog woke from her
afternoon slumber and peeked tentatively around the corner.
Kristi sprinkled some of the catnip on the floor; Shadee dove to the
pile. He first sniffed the leaves, then licked and chewed them. He proceeded
rub his chin and cheeks into the pile and, as if this was not enough exposure, he began rolling and rubbing his entire body in the scattered leaves.
Alice, watching his theatricals, strolled over and placidly sniffed the catnip with her most prudish "I'm-too-beautiful" demeanor. She reposed next to
the wallowing, snuffling Shadee with a serene glazed look, occasionally sniffing or touching her tongue to the catnip.
"Cats can be divided into three categories of response to catnip," says
Dr. Allan Paul, small animal Extension veterinarian at the University of
Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana. "There are total responders, partial responders, and nonresponders. About 70 percent of
domestic cats show at least some response, and this tendency is transmitted genetically to offspring." Catnip, a member of the mint family, is a
harmless herb that has a stimulatory response in all families of cats, including lions and tigers.
Shadee is an example of a total responder. Along with sniffing, licking,
chewing, chin- and cheek-rubbing, and rolling and rubbing, responses of
total responders may include digging, pawing, scratching, salivating, washing, grooming, and vocalizing. Alice is a partial responder. Like most
partial responders, Alice was attracted to the herb but did not enter into the more extreme excitatory phases.
The response to catnip lasts about 5 to 15 minutes and is followed by
an hour when the cat cannot respond to the plant. Although sniffing catnip
an enjoyable experience for cats, addiction is not a concern. Eating catnip is not a problem either. "The animal's response is a reaction to smell
stimulation and not due to actual ingestion of the plant," Dr. Paul explains.
Kittens under 6 weeks of age, for some reason, tend to avoid the plant
and are not attracted until 3 months of age. Health status doesn't keep
from responding to catnip, but a stressed cat may not have a reaction. Although the response to catnip can resemble behavior of a cat in heat, there
is no evidence that catnip is related to sex or reproduction. "Male and female cats are equally susceptible," adds Dr. Paul.
Along with being a curious and entertaining phenomenon, cats' attraction
to catnip can be useful in behavior modification. For example, application
of catnip spray or crushed leaves to a scratching post could make the post a more attractive victim than your new La-Z-Boy. Toys laced with catnip
can be used to encourage exercise in the heftier cat.
You can enjoy watching your cat's predictable, unlearned sequence of
behaviors from exposure to catnip as much as your cat enjoys the herb ...
especially when you know catnip's effect is harmless.
For more information about feline health, contact your local veterinarian.