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What is it with cats and catnip?

Dear Cecil:

A two-part question: we all know cats freak out over catnip — but why? What is it about catnip that gives our feline friends such pleasure? One of my cats, a neutered male named Ivan, also gets off on the scent of imported Spanish olives — once to the point of incontinence. What gives? Is there some chemical similarity between catnip and olive juice?

Bob J., Chicago

Cecil replies:

Catnip research, not too surprisingly, hasn’t kept pace with the other branches of biology, and consequently little is known about the workings of this exotic drug, if drug it be. The odor released from the crushed leaves of Nepeta cataria, as this small mint plant is called, seems to affect only members of the cat family, lions and tigers not excepted. Even cats from parts of the world where catnip is unknown immediately succumb to the aroma.

Catnip seems to act as a stimulant, accelerating the victim’s heartbeat and inducing an uncontrollable urge to “frisk” and/or “scamper.” Root of valerian (which, interestingly enough, was once used as a sedative for humans) has a similar effect on cats, but the scent of Spanish olives seems to be a weakness exclusive to Ivan. It seems less likely that Ivan is in the grip of a catnip-like euphoria than that he’s possessed by another emotion not entirely foreign to housecats, namely “hunger.”

Cecil Adams

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