A cat’s reaction to catnip is controlled by the “N” gene. All cats share a common ancestor, and thus all cats have the same genetic information. The differences in behavior are caused by different chemical reactions in the brain when smelling nepetalactone, an active ingredient in catnip. Cats with two copies of the N gene do not respond to catnip. Five percent of domestic cats in North America do not respond to catnip due to this genetic difference.
Domestic kittens that are younger than 8 weeks old will not respond to catnip at all . Kittens also tend to become less sensitive to it as they get older; after about 6-12 months most kitties will stop reacting to it.
Cats can also become desensitized to catnip over time and experience a “reverse effect”. Some scientists believe this may happen as the result of a genetic shift that occurs when cats are bred with those that do not possess the response gene. Others feel that because catnip is an herb, its potency will decrease as it ages and becomes less fragrant; therefore older kitties need larger amounts of catnip to achieve the same stimulating results.
Can cats be allergic to catnip? Many owners report their cats sneeze or cough after eating catnip; however there has yet to be scientific validation of such an allergy . Some vets suggest these behaviors may occur if too much dried catnip is consumed at one time; others believe there is no correlation.
As of 2002, there are over 100 species of plants that produce nepetalactone. Not only do different types of catnip elicit different responses in cats, but the same plant can cause differing reactions depending on growing conditions.
It has yet to be determined how long it takes for catnip’s stimulating effects on cats to wear off once they stop smelling it. Cat owners should never introduce their pets to new litters of kittens while under the influence!
Catnip may have a similar effect on humans as wasabi or wasp venom . Some evidence suggests that catnip can affect blood pressure and heart rate in both cats and humans. The University of Minnesota offers several suggestions regarding the use of catnip for human health benefits, including popular belief that it acts as an aphrodisiac .
Some research suggests that catnip could be used to treat symptoms of asthma. Studies show nepetalactone is effective at opening air passages in the lungs because it causes cells in the respiratory tract to release chemicals that relax blood vessels and cause them to dilate, thus permitting more oxygen into the body. It has also been shown to help patients undergoing surgery by slowing their heart rate and reducing muscular tension.
The FDA does not approve herbal products as safe or effective treatments for any medical conditions. Cat owners who wish to try catnip should do so with caution, since there are no guarantees when it comes to its use.