The search for the purrfect high
By Leslie Phelan
“Why are Mork and Mindy suddenly making sweet love to the scratching post?”
I tilted my head to fascinate upon these two cats, bro and sis, belonging to a friend. The two were positioned, bellies down, on either side of their carpeted pole in the corner of his living room, the ‘scratching post’ of the house—the central hangout for the feline crew. I’d seen them play with the pole before, mostly with the little tetherball at the top, but had never before seen them freak out in a fit of grinding-hot passion all over it. Today, though, both cats were all hot nuzzles and deep, euphoric purrs, sniffing and rubbing all on it like the disco era’s most sensuous stripper on a stump made of pure crushed velvet and dipped in Missoni. “Catnip,” he said, “I just sprayed their post with catnip.”
Catnip! Yes, I’d heard of this. Like crack for kitties, I’d heard it described, but I’d never actually seen its effects in action. I think that can be mostly due to the fact that any cats I grew up with were barn cats who had free roam of the property and many ways to amuse themselves like keeping the barn free of mice or having explicit affairs with the tomcats who rolled through. They were mysterious, had secret perches, probably found their own catnip; we didn’t get toys for them like one would for town and city cats that spend their whole lives indoors. It was mesmerizing for me, watching them go at it like rabid addicts getting high on a scent.
So I looked it up, and yes, catnip is indeed a drug. A legal one, but a drug nonetheless. When we give it to cats, we are doping them. I’m not against it by any means, but just so we’re clear, we’re pushing drugs on our cats for the benefit of our mutual amusement: they love the tingly hallucinatory spell it puts them under, and we love watching them trip balls all over the carpet.
Wouldn’t it be weird if they had a similar thing for humans? I mean, there is ecstasy and MDMA but you kind of have to commit when taking something chemically produced – it’s a whole day affair. And if it isn’t herbal, then you don’t know if it was whipped up in a lab by some reckless vet students or churned out of a bathtub in the basement of some brothel. Personally, at this age, I’m into spritzing some magic nectar onto a pillow to bliss out on it for half an hour here and there, not ruin my life by frying my brain.
Now that I’m really thinking about it, I think sex is the only thing aside from opioids and psychedelics that has the power to render a human into an absolute cuddle puddle of ravenous, passionate affection. Can you think of anything that actually has the full catnip effect on a human? I can’t really . . . but then again, I’m a virgin to the harder stuff.
The secret body-bliss motivator in catnip and in sex is in the pheromones, which, when indulged in, leads to the release of dopamine, thereby tickling the pleasure center of our brains. That’s what sex does to us, and that’s what catnip does to cats. But do cats get that from sex, or is catnip a better high for them? Most house cats are fixed and the ones that aren’t don’t really get the chance unless they escape, making it hard to know for sure. And if a barn cat isn’t fixed, it’s definitely got a million hiding places in which to do the deed without even coming close to having you witness it. Ever seen cats having sex? Me either.
They sure let us watch them luxuriate in the sweet olfactory blitz that catnip delivers though, don’t they? They flaunt their euphoria like teenage EDM tarts at a rave, as if they know there is nothing quite like it for us to experience in a way that doesn’t involve taking drugs or getting naked. And I think that if you asked a cat, they’d say the joke is on us.
Because they’re always already naked.