What does catnip do to cats? In short it sets off a series of nerve stimulations from the nose to the center of the brain where it has an effect upon the hypothalamus and the amygdala creating an emotional sexual response akin to responding to an artificial cat pheromone. A pheromone acts like an airborne hormone.
This post has to be slightly boring in a scientific sense because the title asks a scientific question. My impression is that science has not fully grasped what is happening when a cat sniffs catnip. However we know enough to provide a fairly accurate description.
Nepetalactone is one of catnip’s volatile oils and an organic compound. It is described as a ‘cat attractant’. It is thought to mimic feline pheromones and trigger receptors. A receptor is a protein molecule which receives chemical signals from outside a cell. When these chemical signals bind to a receptor they causes a change in the electrical activity of the cell.
When the cat sniffs this oil it impinges upon the cat’s nasal tissue. It is then picked up by a receptor where it triggers (stimulates) sensory neurons.
Neurons are nerve cells. The signal then provokes a response in neurons in the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb in the domestic cat is where there is a conglomeration of nerve tissue concerned with olfaction (the sense of smell). From there the signal goes to several regions of the brain including the amygdala which is a cluster of neurons in the middle of the brain which is concerned with emotional responses. The signal also goes to the hypothalamus which is the master gland and which plays a role in regulating everything from emotions to hunger.
The hypothalamus also regulates nervous and hormonal responses (neuroendocrine responses) through the pituitary gland which creates a sexual response. The cat therefore reacts to catnip as if it is an artificial cat pheromone.
I have used my own words in this article while taking information from Scientific American. I’ve tried to simplify the language to make it more readable. As I understand it, this chemical nepetalactone sets of a series of stimulations of the nervous system from the nose into the brain leading to a response which can be similar to that of a sexual response.
Apparently the response is inherited and affects around three quarters of domestic cats. The stimulation lasts about 10 minutes and there will be a pause of about 30 minutes until the stimulation can restart.
Catnip is a plant of the mint family and it was brought to North America by settlers. It is native to Asia, Africa and Europe but non-native to America. For those people who complain about non-native species in America, this one seems to be doing some good! It causes no long-term detrimental effects to the domestic cat.