14 February 2018

Do Some Cats Respond Quietly to Catnip?

Young kittens don't have an active response to catnip. But if you think your cat does not respond to catnip, maybe it's just a quiet response, according to a recent study.

Not all cats have an active response to catnip, but study suggests other cats adopt the Sphinx position, like this tabby cat
Photo: Prasom Boonpong / Shutterstock

It is widely believed some cats respond to catnip and some cats don’t. A recent study throws that into question by suggesting almost all cats respond to catnip – it’s just that some of them do so in a quiet manner. While more research is needed, the study also finds young kittens (less than 3 months) do not have the active response to catnip.

The classic catnip response is an active one that typically involves rolling around, rubbing the chin or cheek on the catnip, sniffing or licking the catnip, shaking the head from side to side, drooling, bunny-kicking and/or rippling skin on the back. This response to catnip is seen in about two thirds of cats. It is inherited – and it is also seen in some other feline species such as Bobcats.

A 2017 study by Luz Teresa Espín-Iturbe (Universidad Veracruzana) et al suggests that all cats respond to catnip. But instead of the active response, some cats have a passive response that involves a decrease in activity and assuming the Sphinx position.

60 cats at a shelter in Veracruz, Mexico, took part in the study. They were divided into 3 age groups: young (less than 3 months old), juvenile (3 to 6 months) and adult (6 months or older).

Within each age group, there were equal numbers of male and female cats, and equal numbers of those were either sexually intact or had an early spay/neuter at 6 weeks. The spay/neuter surgery was conducted at the shelter, and afterwards cats had 2 weeks to recover before taking part in the study.

For the study itself, cats were put into a cylindrical chamber from which they could not see out. Over 3 days, they had 10 minutes in the chamber each day to let them get used to it. Then on the fourth day, they had 5 minutes in the chamber, then catnip was put inside and they spent a further 5 minutes in the chamber with the catnip.

The scientists studied video of the cat’s behaviour before and after the catnip was added. A sample of the catnip was tested in a laboratory to confirm that it was indeed catnip (Nepeta cataria).

The active catnip response (rolling around etc.) was seen in 45% of the adult cats and in 25% of the juvenile cats. But it was not seen at all in the young kittens (less than 3 months old).

The Sphinx position was also most often seen in adult cats. Amongst juveniles, it was seen more often in males than in female cats. Male cats were less likely to groom, miaow, and to show reduced activity, and spent more time in the Sphinx position, than female cats.

Cats that had early spay/neuter had less activity after the presentation of catnip than cats that were still entire/intact. However, the frequency of rolling over was not affected by spay/neuter status.

The scientists suggest the active response to catnip is therefore not affected by sex hormones (in line with earlier research), but by maturation of the brain, which means young kittens have not matured enough to have an active response. They also propose the idea that different chemicals within the catnip are responsible for these differing responses – nepetalactone for the active response, and actinidine for the passive response. Further research is needed to test this hypothesis.

One drawback to the study is that no control was used. Although the scientists write that this is not a limitation because of the behaviours they observed (e.g. the active catnip response and adopting the Sphinx position), it would have been helpful to show the reduced activity responses were due to catnip and not to other factors (such as anxiety at or interest in a change in the environment).

In Neil Todd's classic research on the catnip response, tea leaves were used as a control. More recently, researchers have used a catnip-impregnated cloth or put it in a sock. This has the advantage that the control looks exactly the same as the catnip-infused item, which means observers coding the cat's behaviour can be blind to the condition. Cats can respond to a control because it is a novel item.

For example, in Ellis and Wells (2010) study of five different types of olfactory stimulation including a control (an unscented cloth), cats still spent a little time investigating the unscented cloth. In this study, even though cats were not pre-tested for the catnip response, in general cats spent more time interacting with the catnip-scented-cloth than the other scents, were more likely to have a playful response to it (consistent with an active catnip response) and also spent less time grooming and more time sleeping compared to the presentation of the control (unscented) cloth. So it’s interesting the new study also found reduced activity as a response.

Catnip is not the only plant that cats can respond to. According to research by Sebastiaan Bol et al, many cats also respond to silver vine, valerian and Tatarian honeysuckle.

Scent is very important to cats, and providing scents can be a good enrichment activity. So whether or not you think your cat enjoys catnip, it is worth trying some of these other plants too. Some cat toys contain both catnip and silver vine. Silver vine (also known as matatabi) is available separately as both a powder and a stick. Valerian can be found in some cat toys, and Tatarian honeysuckle is available from the Cat House in Calgary. Remember to always give your cat a choice of whether or not to interact with new scents/items.

Although more research is needed, this study suggests cats may enjoy catnip even if they don't actively respond by rolling around.

How does your cat respond to catnip?

Bol, S., Caspers, J., Buckingham, L., Anderson-Shelton, G. D., Ridgway, C., Buffington, C. T., Schulz, S. & Bunnik, E. M. (2017). Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and catnip (Nepeta cataria). BMC Veterinary Research, 13(1), 70.  Open access.
Ellis, S. L., & Wells, D. L. (2010). The influence of olfactory stimulation on the behaviour of cats housed in a rescue shelter. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123(1), 56-62.
Espín-Iturbe, L. T., Yañez, B. A. L., García, A. C., Canseco-Sedano, R., Vázquez-Hernández, M., & Coria-Avila, G. A. (2017). Active and passive responses to catnip (Nepeta cataria) are affected by age, sex and early gonadectomy in male and female cats. Behavioural processes, 142, 110-115.
Todd, N. B. (1962). Inheritance of the catnip response in domestic cats. Journal of Heredity, 53(2), 54-56.

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