Sunday 17 April 2022

Is catnip good for cats and is it a drug?

Yes, is the answer to both questions in the title. Catnip is good for cats because it gives them a little bit of a buzz without apparently any downsides. It excites them and stimulates them but there appear to be no immediate negative side-effects and neither would it seem are there any long-term negative effects to the brain. 

This is unusual in the human world. All the drugs that humans take to alter their minds at least potentially cause damage to the brain. Even cannabis which is regarded as completely safe by millions of people is dangerous to certain individuals who are predisposed to psychotic episodes or mental health problems.

Crackhead ginger tabby cat slides into pile of catnip. Photo in public domain.
Crackhead ginger tabby cat slides into pile of catnip. Photo in public domain.

So, the mildest mind-altering drug for humans carries a risk despite what many people think. But catnip does not. If it did, we would have known by now although it is difficult to tell whether a domestic cat has mental health problems.

It is certainly a drug because it is mind altering just like cannabis. The chemical substance that actually has an effect on the brain triggering the production of endorphins and perhaps other chemicals in the brain, is called nepetalactone. Although, as I recall, even the best scientists don't know as yet how this chemical substance works on the brain to produce the response we see. What I mean is we don't know the exact chemistry of the process. I am sure that we could find out but it seems that people are not interested enough to do a full-blown study on it.

When a domestic cat rolls around in catnip the scientists call it "olfactory enrichment". Or olfactory stimulation. I guess you know, too, that tigers respond very positively to catnip. It is just another piece of evidence which supports how close the domestic cat is to their big cousins.

Nearly all domestic cats respond positively to olfactory enrichment. And about one in every three cats, in a study, responded to catnip. Another plant that causes a euphoric reaction is silvervine. Another name for silvervine is matatabi. 

Almost 80% of domestic cats in a study responded to silvervine and about 50% responded to another plant called Tatarian honeysuckle and the same percentage responded well to valerian root. Of the cats who did not respond to catnip almost 75% did respond to silvervine and about one in three responded to the honeysuckle. Both these are good alternatives to catnip.

Wouldn't it be nice if there was a human version of catnip? It would be the saviour of millions of people. Alcohol ruins lives. Cannabis can damage the brain. All the other human drugs are addictive and can damage the brain and the lives of people who take them. But cats blissfully enjoy catnip and can do so for as long as often as they like it appears without any negative effects. Just plenty of olfactory enrichment and fun!

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