Why do cats go crazy over catnip? Also, “a cat I know” acted strange after getting into some olives. Are they related?
First off, not all cats react to catnip. It appears to be genetic. Up until a kitten is three months old, they don’t care for catnip at all. After that, only about half of cats go ga-ga for it. If a cat’s parents are sensitive to the ‘nip, than the kitten likely will be as well. If only one parent delights in catnip, the offspring have a fifty-fifty chance of acquiring the taste.
Sadly, that seems to suggest that catnip as a source for human entertainment will fade out over the generations.
Catnip is a plant closely related to oregano, basil and spearmint. What makes it special is the presence of nepetalactone, a compound found within the oils that burst forth from catnip when it is rubbed or chewed. The scent of the nepetalactone is what drives cats nuts.
There is no conclusive study to say why cats have the reaction they do, but the flopping acrobatics of a cat rolling around the floor seems to be a common occurrence.
Bonus fact: Nepetalactone is also a strong insect repellent, ten times more effective than DEET. It can be found in some natural products to save you from bugs. Unfortunately, the compound degrades quickly and the repellent only lasts a couple hours.
Now, as for olives, which is a well documented cat stimulant, it is most likely caused by the presence of oleic acid in the olives. This is a main ingredient of the pheremone that cats spread around when they rub their chin on something. For the same reason, cats have been known to go wild over squished ants, which also contain the oleic acid.