Why Are Cats Attracted to Catnip?

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Catnip is a treat for many cats. Its effects are normally short-lived -- 10 minutes or so at a time -- but intense. For many feline guardians, it is obvious there is something biological at work when their cat gets a hold of the plant and goes nuts. The science turns out to be a mixture of genetics and instinct.

Genetics

  • You may have noticed that not every cat falls prey to the temptations of catnip. In fact, only about one in two cats is attracted to catnip. Genetics determine this -- so if you have a playful cat who loves the substance, it might have to do with her genes. In fact, it's not only domestic cats that are drawn to the herb -- it is also wildcats, such as lions, tigers and panthers.

Age

  • Attraction to catnip is something that becomes evident as cats grow up. The first time you might see a reaction in your feline might not be until he is 3 to 6 months of age. By the same token, senior cats might not respond with the same vigor as they once did when they were middle-aged, demonstrating less of the playfulness that catnip can invoke.

Scent

  • Cats are scent-driven creatures. Their hunting instincts and everyday communication is based on what they sense in the air, through their noses and scent glands. Catnip is a plant whose smell is strong, at least to felines. The herb's intoxicating properties are therefore transmitted to the cat through the vehicle she uses to interact with the world: her sense of smell.

Nepetalactone

  • Catnip contains an oil that is attractive to kitty cats -- nepetalactone. According to Animal Planet, it is this oil that triggers a response in a cat's brain that leads to the distinctive behavior -- licking, chewing and rolling around. Catnip sprays contain less of this oil than do the dried or fresh herb versions of the plant -- for this reason sprays tend to invoke less of a reaction.

Timing

  • You might notice your kitty's reaction to catnip is short-lived. In fact, the catnip euphoria lasts just a few minutes -- and then your cat probably will lose interest. An hour or two later, however, she'll be back again, ready for another playful romp. This is a natural phenomenon -- your cat will be catnip-happy for awhile, then will need a break before her brain is susceptible again to its temptations.

References

  • Photo Credit Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images
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