Timmy our stray cat after a session with a catnip toy
This is a look at the cat drugs of catnip and matatabi from a slightly scientific point of view. Catnip is well known and the Japanese matatabi hardly known at all.
Catnip is a mint like plant that contains the chemical nepetalactone. The scientific name for catnip is Nepeta cataria.
Not all cats get a high from nepetalactone as susceptibility is inherited. A cat that had one parent who was sensitive to nepetalactone has a 50% chance of being sensitive too. If both parents were sensitive the chance rises to 75%. The 'catnip-response' is inherited as an autosomal dominant (Todd 1962).
A cat “trip” induced by catnip results in the cat doing the following in this order:
- licking and chewing with head shaking
- chin rubbing
- cheek rubbing
- rolling on its side and body rubbing (similar to estrous females – in heat)
- being spaced out after playing with it
- digging or pawing
Trips lasts no more than 15 minutes with a one hour readjustment time afterwards. As far as we know no permanent brain damage is caused. It seems that overdosing or prolonged use can be detrimental.
Apparently cat thyme and valerian have similar effects.
When catnip is taken internally it acts as a sedative. The Japanese plant Actinidia polygama (also known as the Silver Vine) contains a chemical that is used to sedate lions in zoos.
Castoreum (exudate from the castor sacs of the mature North American Beaver) and catnip proved an effective lure to the lynx because it had a high detection rate by this wild cat (Reference 1).
The first reports on the attraction of catnip to Felis catus (domestic cat) were published well over 200 years ago.
The catnip response only works on cats over 6 – 8 weeks of age and may not work until the cat is three months old (Reference 2).
Frozen catnip that has been thawed out works relatively poorly. Fresh and extracted catnip oils work well. Commercial imitation catnip works poorly (Reference 3)
In the USA a company applied for a patent to use catnip as a “palatability enhancer”. Another example of how commercial cat food really is all about money.
The chemical contained in this plant is also attractive to cats. It is also used in Chinese folk medicine for pain control, as a tonic and for rheumatism. The chemical is cyclopentanoid monoterpenes like iridomyrimecin (Reference 7).
Cats respond to this plant by:
- rub their fur on it
Accordingly, it is effective in gathering in feral cats. I am not sure if it used by cat rescue teams to gather in and trap feral cats. However as a lure it would seem to have been considered (or actually used) by animal control teams to capture and poison feral cats (Reference 5). The bait being a mix of matatabi and a poison.
The cat drugs of catnip and matatabi were the most effective cat lures in a scientific test (Reference 6) being more effective than:
- food odours (fish oils)
- social odours (urine and its components for example)
The cat drugs of catnip and matatabi - Pictures:
Catnip drawing: Wikimedia Commons: uploaded by Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) from a 1796 drawing in the public domain.
The cat drugs of catnip and matatabi -- Actinidia polygama: Wikimedia Commons: author: Shu Suehiro