Science Asks if Catnip Really Makes Your Cat “High”

As with everything, religion included, when we cannot understand a phenomenon, we always seek for answers in science. It is science that answered the old age question of “which came first: the chicken or the egg?” Similarly, there is a specific response that cats display whenever they sniff some catnip, and science has once again been called upon to show if we should be worried that our feline friends get high on the plant. Let see what science has concluded so far.

What makes people think their cats are high?

Of course, any abnormal behavior upon exposure to any external stimulant will have you questioning if your cat has been “smoking” anything. According to Scientific American, when cats sniff catnip, they behave like females in heat. They can salivate, vocalize, roll on their back, rub the plant on their body and head or even lick it. However, while some cats may behave like that, others will not be affected because the response is hereditary and affects about 70% of all cats. The “high” behavior can last for as long as ten minutes, after which your cat will not be affected for about half an hour when it will be calm and be in a stupor. However, you might also notice that the little ones do not exhibit any change in their behavior upon exposure. Apparently, only cats that have reached sexual maturity get “high” on catnip.

How does catnip make your cat “high?”

Whether it is a dried plant, an oil extract, or a fresh plant, your cat will react the same way upon sniffing a catnip. According to Vox, when they inhale the plant, the chemical (nepetalactone) in it enters the nasal cavity where there are protein receptors. The compounds bind to the receptors resulting in stimulation of the sensory neurons, thus affecting the activity around the hypothalamus, olfactory bulb, and the amygdala. Since the hypothalamus affects emotions and hunger, it could explain why the cats start drooling.

So, will catnip negatively affect your cat?

Although some sources claim that catnip is safe for cats, others believe it can affect your pet adversely. Just like humans who can be on either end of the spectrum when high, some cats will be very aggressive when high, thus start biting or hissing. Therefore if you prefer the calmness that the cats exhibit after the high duration is over, you might want first to check your cat’s reaction individually. Further, some cats are allergic to catnip, and since there are over 250 varieties of the plant, your cat may fail to react adversely to one type but be allergic to another. Hence it is advisable that when exposing your pet to catnip, be present to check for any seizures or unconsciousness. Additionally, too much of anything is always poisonous. Consequently, your cat may not have side effects with a small dosage, but if given a large amount, it can vomit or diarrhea. However, after it is flushed out of their system, they will feel better.

Is catnip similar to weed?

Most people like comparing catnip to weed even using it as an alternative, but they are two very different plants. Catnip is from the Lamiaceae family that comprises rosemary, lavender, and mint, among others. Weed, on the other hand, belongs to the Cannabaceae family that includes hackberry, hops, and hemp. Besides the different species, the absorption by the body of the various chemicals differs. Catnip’s chemical, nepetalactone, is absorbed by the olfactory bulb through active sniffing, whereas cannabis’s THC is absorbed through inhalation by the lungs or through ingestion by the gastrointestinal tract. The activations process is also different; in catnips, the chemical activates the olfactory bulb receptors and consequently sends signals to the hypothalamus and amygdala. THC, however, activates endocannabinoid receptors.

Do humans react to catnip the same way as cats?

There are mixed studies regarding how humans react to catnip. According to Popular Science, humans are not affected by catnip as cats are. The assumption is that it is because we do not have the nepetalactone receptors. However, we do have the olfactory bulb just like any other vertebrae. Hence other studies suggest that in the 1960s, catnip was used as a replacement for marijuana. According to those reports, catnip can cause hallucinations, both visual and auditory, in humans. It has been said to lead to hysteria, insanity, and nervous headaches. Contrastingly, other people believe it helps to alleviate stress and anxiety, as well as help with digestion and reduce fever.

Are cats the only animals that get “high” on plants?

If you thought that cats are the only animals that love getting high, then you are mistaken. Horses take locoweed, especially during winter, because it is the only green plant available in some places. Unfortunately, the plant kills them gradually since it is very addictive, and once they taste it, they keep going back for more. It is mind-altering, and with regular intake, it causes weight loss, depression, and unstable behavior.

Jaguars also love getting high on the caapi plant, so they will gnaw on its roots until the effects start kicking in. Caapi roots contain chemicals that are like powerful antidepressants that results in heightened senses. Even capuchin monkeys are not left out in the addicts’ world. Some millipedes squirt a poisonous substance that also contains cyanide. Still, that does not stop the monkeys from getting close to the millipedes since the compound not only helps to keep parasitic insects away but also causes them to be high.

Even underwater, dolphins are suspected of seeking the high from pufferfish. According to Animal Cognition, a BBC documentary revealed dolphins carrying puffer fish in their mouth and squeezing them. The speculations were that the pufferfish contain neurotoxins, which the dolphins are eager to get since, after the squeeze, the dolphins began acting strangely. The intelligent dolphins also know that too much of the neurotoxin is fatal, so they take only enough to get into a trance.


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