Somewhere, I imagine scientists in white lab coats are crouched over microscopes in sterile rooms decoding DNA. When I imagine a catnip research lab, I imagine something quite different. I see white lab coats covered in fur, sneezing lab technicians, scratching posts, and a bunch of cats enjoying themselves and rolling head over heels in catnip — while other cats watch lazily and wonder what the fuss is all about.
According to the Feline Health Center at Cornell University, only about half the cats in the world respond to catnip. Apparently, the intense interest some cats have in catnip is an inherited trait. Cats with only one catnip-loving parent only have a one-in-two chance of developing a love of catnip as well. If both parents are sensitive to catnip, the odds of their kittens being sensitive as well increase to thee-in-four. Regardless of their disposition towards catnip later in life, all kittens are indifferent to catnip until they are around three months old.
Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, a member of the mint family of plants that also includes basil, oregano, and spearmint, contains Nepetalactone, which is one of several compounds that create a chemical reaction in cats. Scientists state that the reaction to catnip typically starts with sniffing, then progresses to licking, chewing, head shaking and rubbing, and then head-over-heels rolling. Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly newsletter of the American Chemical Society suggests that cat owners who have cats that are sensitive to catnip store the catnip in the freezer, as Nepetalactone is volatile and will degrade over time otherwise.