Does Catnip "Work" on Big Cats Like Lions and Tigers?

Catnip (or Nepeta cataria, as scientists so eloquently call it) is a perennial herb that drives many house cats wild with delight. It was probably first noticed as an attractant when big cats swarmed around withered or bruised plants growing in the wild.

A full response to catnip involves four actions, usually in this order:

  1. Sniffing
  2. Licking and chewing with head shaking
  3. Chin and cheek rubbing
  4. Head-over rolling and body rubbing

The full cycle usually lasts under fifteen minutes. Some cats will also vocalize after the head-over rolling, presumably a response to hallucinations. Although the cats exposed to catnip mimic their behavior when in heat, catnip does not increase sexual interest or activity and doesn't seem to affect cats in heat more perceptibly.

Scientists know quite a bit about how domestic cats react to catnip. Most cats do not begin responding to the plant until they are six to eight weeks of age, and some may not respond until they are three months of age. All of the research provided by the Cornell Feline Health Center indicates that cats' reaction to catnip is independent of sex or neutering status. Susceptibility is inherited as an autosomal dominant trait—about a third of domestic cats have no reaction to catnip.

Two-legged mammals have not been immune to the charms of catnip. Veterinarian Jeff Grognet cites the historical use of catnip by humans; the versatile herb was used to make tea, juice, tincture, poultice, and infusions. Catnip was also smoked and chewed for its reputed therapeutic, hallucinogenic, or euphoria-inducing properties.

Scientists, like our reader, have also been curious about the effect of catnip on other cats, and other types of animals. In the largest study of catnip's effect on a wide range of animals, Dr. N. B. Todd's conclusion was clear: Although a few individual animals of almost every type reacted in some way to catnip, cats responded most often and most intensely.

Out of sixteen lions tested, fourteen had full household cat-type responses. Almost half of twenty-three tigers tested had no response at all, but many had incomplete responses: Some sniffed; fewer licked; only a couple chin-rubbed; and none exhibited head-over rolling. But young tigers had violently strong reactions to catnip. Most leopards, jaguars, and snow leopards had strong, full-cycle reactions to catnip. We know that bobcats and lynx love catnip, for the herb is sold commercially to lure these cats for trapping purposes.

Noncats, such as civets and mongooses, were mostly indifferent to catnip, although a few exhibited sniffing reactions. An earlier study that predates Todd's concluded that dogs, rabbits, mice, rats, guinea pigs, and fowls were indifferent to a powdered form of catnip that seduced domestic cats. Yet many dog owners report that their pets respond to catnip.

For some anecdotal evidence, we contacted several of the largest American zoos to see if they exposed their big cats to catnip. We found cat keepers almost as curious about catnip as the cats themselves.

We spoke to one cat keeper who fed jaguars catnip directly. “They like it,” he said. “They get goofy.” But the same keeper reported that a snow leopard wasn't interested. Another keeper reported that tigers responded “to some extent.” It seems difficult to distinguish between the exact effects from one cat breed to another.

Rick Barongi, director of the Children's Zoo at the San Diego Zoo, reports that although most pet owners usually spray catnip scent on a favorite toy of their cat, zoo keepers cannot. A jaguar or lion will simply rip apart and then eat the toy, so instead they spray a piece of wood or a log that a big cat can claw or scratch. Barongi shares the belief that all cats respond to catnip to some extent but that younger cats respond more than older cats, and that all cats react more on first exposure to catnip than in subsequent encounters.

After a thrill or two with catnip, the San Diego Zoo keepers have found that big cats are more entertained in the long run by scratch posts, boomer balls, larger cages, or—most expensive, but most satisfying of all—the pleasure of the company of a cage mate.


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