No matter how much catnip you snort, you'll never look like this. [Image Credit: Imgur]
Sometimes I feel like my cats do more drugs than anyone I know.
Well, one drug specifically — Nepeta cataria, also known as catnip. If either of my cats get a whiff of the stuff from the Tupperware that’s hidden beneath my kitchen sink, they’ll do their best to shred into my secret stash, scattering green, minty scraps everywhere. To celebrate this victory, they’ll wriggle around in their ill-gained booty, purring and squishing their tiny fuzzy faces into whatever bits of catnip they stole.
Frankly, I’m jealous. No matter what I’ve tried, catnip never seems to do anything for me. In my latest attempt, I tried brewing tea out of the stuff. It tasted somewhat minty, smelled like compost, and didn’t give me the slightest buzz.
So what gives? What’s in ‘nip that turns felines into fuzzy little stoners, and why does it do nothing for their human pals?
Scientists are still pinning down the exact mechanics behind a catnip high, but we know the basics. The secret lies inside the leaves and stems of catnip plants, which are covered in tiny bulbs filled with an oil called nepetalactone (nep·e·ta·LAC·tone).
When these bulbs break, the volatile oil immediately evaporates, sending tiny nepetalactone molecules wafting through the air and into the back of a cat’s tiny nostrils. These molecules then bind together like a lock and key with specific olfactory receptors — sensory cells that process scent information. Once these two pieces click together, the receptors send electrical impulses to brain cells leading up to the olfactory bulb — a smooth round nubbin of grey matter that processes odors. This bulb shoots similar electrical impulses to other brain regions, including the amygdala (which regulates emotional responses) and hypothalamus (which controls behavioral responses and bodily functions).
Some researchers think that the nepetalactone molecules have a similar shape to certain mating pheromones, and when they bind to receptors deep inside kitty nostrils, they produce a similar response. In short, when our cats smell catnip, they’re thinking about some stud wafting sexy pheromones their way, resulting in rolling, drooling, and dopey nonsense. This theory also explains why little kittens aren’t affected by the charms of catnip; until they reach sexual maturity (roughly 6 to 8 weeks old), they’re generally unfazed by the stuff — possibly because these artificial pheromones mean nothing to them.
They also mean nothing to humans. While cats have the receptors that allow pheromones to hook inside their nose and set off that feel-good reaction inside their brains, humans are just wired differently. With that said, there are some purported effects of catnip on us. Centuries ago, Europeans brewed, smoked, and chewed on the leaves for its proposed sedative effects. More recently, a toddler accidentally munched on a mega-dose of catnip and got pretty sleepy as a result.
We might not have brains that are wired for catnip, but our fuzzy friends sure do. Think about that the next time you catch a whiff of that green stuff in your local pet store — just don’t try to make tea with it. Trust me on that one.