Catnip sensitivity is inherited, says Carolyn M. McDaniel, a veterinarian at the Feline Health Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. A kitten with only one catnip-sensitive parent has a one-in-two chance of developing the sensitivity; if both parents have the sensitivity, the chances rise to at least three in four, she says.
There is a chemical cause for the response to catnip (Nepeta cataria), available in pet shops as a raw herb or essential oil, says McDaniel. Nepetalactone is one of several compounds known to set off the characteristic set of behaviors associated with exposure to catnip. These behaviors generally start with sniffing, licking and chewing, followed by head shaking, body and head rubbing, and then repeated head-over-heels rolling, McDaniel explains. While neurologists don’t yet have a thorough knowledge of why catnip works in some felines, they generally agree that a cat receives the necessary stimuli from receptors in its nose and mouth, she says.
C&EN offers one tip for cat owners: Store catnip in your freezer to preserve its potency. Nepetalactone is volatile and will degrade over time otherwise.
The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization, chartered by the U.S. Congress, with a multidisciplinary membership of more than 158,000 chemists and chemical engineers. It publishes numerous scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.
To access the C&EN What’s That Stuff? column on Catnip, go to