Your little predator loses its mind over catnip, but is the zeal shared by her big-cat relatives?
It sure is! Biologists and zoologists have known since at least the 1970’s that big cats can be just as gaga for catnip as their more compact brethren. The first study on record was performed by researchers from the Knoxville Zoological Park and the University of Tennessee, who doled out generous amounts of catnip, as well as rocks that had been sprayed with catnip extract, to some of the park’s big cats. Most of the cats loved it, especially the lions and jaguars, who enjoyed even very small amounts of catnip. The big cats seemed to love catnip regardless of gender, although middle-age cats had a much more enthusiastic reaction than kittens, cubs, adolescents, and elderly cats.
However, not all the cats were equally as enamored with the catnip. Bobcats, cougars, and tigers, for example, showed positive reactions but on a far lesser scale than lions and jaguars. Cheetahs, on the other hand, had no interest in participating with either the catnip or the control objects. Since catnip grows in North America and Europe, researchers speculated that animals who might encounter catnip in the wild were less interested in it than those who would never come across it in their natural environment. Novelty, then, might have been a major element in how much the big cats enjoyed the catnip.
How did the big cats show their appreciation for the herb? In a way that would remind any cat owner of their own little lion at home: they rolled around in it, rubbing it on their body, especially their chins and cheeks, as well as sniffing it and licking at it. The only major difference in reactions was that the big cats seemed capable of enjoying the catnip for much longer periods of time. Your average housecat can be entertained by catnip for about 15 minutes before they need to “reset” their senses, which can take an hour or more, after which they’re susceptible to its properties again. Big cats, on the other hand, could enjoy catnip for longer than an hour at a time and only take a few minutes before they “reset”.
So what does a big cat look like when it’s enjoying the delicate pleasures of catnip? Here are some videos of the ferocious beasts showing their inner kittens: