Animal IQ

Is Your Cat Indifferent To Catnip? It's In Good Company.

If you've never watched a cat succumb to a catnip-induced high, you're missing out. The plant triggers some very weird feline behavior that can provide humans plenty of entertainment. But if your cat just says no to the 'nip, that doesn't mean there's something wrong. Nearly a third of cats don't react to the plant's active ingredient.

Related: There's A Good Reason Cats Can't Find The Treats You Put In Front Of Them

Why we're covering this:

  • You might get a kick out of watching your cat go crazy for catnip, but you may have wondered: what's actually going on? 
  • Plenty of cats don't care about the stuff — and if yours is one of them, that doesn't mean there's something wrong with your pet.
  • Understanding why some cats are sensitive and others aren't helps us all brush up on our high school genetics.

Lion Tested, Kitty Approved

That ingredient is called nepetalactone. It can send most cats into a frenzy, making them sniff, lick, and rub against the plant, along with doing other odd things like rolling around, shaking their heads, and passionately meowing. Scientists haven't identified the exact mechanism involved in this feline freakout, but they think the smell of nepetalactone signals similar areas of the brain that sex pheromones do. Oh my.

Related: Catnip's Active Ingredient Is Actually Its Defense Mechanism

Though people have known about catnip's hilarious effects since the 18th century, the first scientist to discover the active ingredient was chemist Samuel M. McElvain in 1942, who extracted nepetalactone from the plant and tested it, not on housecats, but on African lions at a Wisconsin zoo. (Seems like a lot more trouble, but we won't judge.) It came through with flying colors, according to the study: "The reaction of the lions to either nepetalactone or the catnip plant is quite similar to that of an ordinary house cat. They can be aroused immediately from a state of lethargy to one of intense excitement by the odor of the lactone, and will follow the odor to its source. When they acquire the material with the odor they become ludicrously playful and their main interest seems to be to get the odoriferous material transferred to their fur."

Related: Why Calico Cats Are Almost Always Female

Intoxication In Their DNA

So why do some cats miss out on all the fun? Because their parents didn't pass down the trait. The gene for catnip sensitivity is dominant, which means that if one or both parents have it, their offspring is likely to be sensitive to catnip. If neither parent carries the gene, their offspring won't be affected. As a result, around 70 percent of cats get high off of the green stuff, and roughly 20–30 percent aren't affected at all. Is your cat in the former or latter camp? Only one way to find out.

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Written By
Curiosity Staff
March 10, 2017