2017-02-22 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

My friend’s two cats- Pitty Pat and Margaret- are not thrilled about each other, but do share affection for a particular condiment- olives. They knock them off the table, swat them and rub against the top of the olives too. The cats even roll near the olive oil bottle on the table. But why?

It turns out olives contain a compound chemical similar to the active ingredient in catnip, so their feline reaction to olives isn’t really unusual. Isoprenoids are the compounds common to catnip and olives. These chemicals are primarily found in pimentos and different varieties of green olives, such as Kalamatas. Pitty Pat and Margaret are most affected by Kalamatas. They don’t eat them but will stick their heads in the olive container.

Cats have an acute sense of smell, not as sensitive as dogs, but far surpassing the scope of the human nose. The feline olfactory system is complex. Cat nasal cavities are filled with a number of bony plates called turbinals. These turbinals are covered with layers of tissue holding huge numbers of olfactory cells. Olfactory cells are ‘’sensory cells,” which means they transmit signals to the brain. Olfactory cells transmit sensory stimuli caused by odor.


Read why many cats react to certain types of olives in a “catnip” way. Read why many cats react to certain types of olives in a “catnip” way. Humans have between five and 20 million olfactory cells in our noses; whereas, cats have about 67 million. Therefore, a cat has more than triple our total olfactory cells. (“All the better to smell you with, Red Riding Hood!”)

To understand the connection between catnip and olives, first we need to examine where the “catnip effect” takes place. Cats have more than a nose to discern scents. They have a special piece of equipment known as the Jacobson’s organ or vomeronasal organ (VNO). Located in the roof of the mouth on the hard palate, it contains ducts that lead to the mouth and to the nose. The VNO is a scent analyzer, used primarily for identifying pheromones (scent chemicals) from other cats, especially those found in urine.

Here’s how the vomeronasal organ works: A specific scent is collected in the mouth where the cat then uses his tongue to flick it up to the VNO. You can tell when your cat is using his VNO because his facial expression resembles a grimace. His upper lip will be curled and his mouth will be partially open. This expression is known as the “flehmen reaction”- from the German meaning “baring upper teeth.”

Air inhaled during flehmen reaction brings the maximum number of scent particles into the VNO. Information about the scent is then transmitted to the hypothalamus. This is a different area of the brain receiving these signals from those leaving the nose via olfactory nerves. The VNO sends its signals to the hypothalamus which then triggers complex reproductive behavior and hunger for food.

All cats have this organ and can use it whenever they come across a scent they feel requires more in-depth examination. Kittens as young as six weeks will sniff a particular odor source, often touching it with its nose and perhaps its tongue. This scent testing technique is most often used by intact males reacting to pheromones in the urine of females in heat.

How the VNO processes catnip (and certain olives) for cats: Catnip is a perennial herb plant from the mint family “labiatae.” It was originally grown in the Mediterranean but is now native in North America and Canada also. The active ingredient in catnip that causes cats to respond to it is called Nepetalactone.

The response to catnip (and certain olives) depends on the individual cat and how it responds to VNO stimulation. Some cats are very relaxed after exposure to catnip. They start with rubbing their face over the catnip or green olives to give their VNO a chance to process the catnip/olive scent. They may roll on their back while licking and rubbing the catnip or condiment.

Other cats can have a more dramatic response to catnip (and certain olives). After exposure they may start rolling and rubbing but then become very active, running and jumping around. Normally reserved cats may start yowling or begging. Some will simply adopt a glassy eyed “don’t mess with me” expression. A small percentage of cats do not respond to catnip at all. A feline reaction to the coveted compound usually it lasts five to 15 minutes.

The catnip plant is non-toxic. Large quantities of catnip or olives can sometimes cause vomiting or diarrhea. It is quite rare for cats to become ill after being exposed to normal amounts of catnip but should any ill effects occur, simply remove the catnip product from the cat until he has settled down. Cat behaviorist and TV host Jackson Galaxy says consuming olives has no harmful effect on cats, yet olives offer no nutritional benefit either.

After this discussion of cats being attracted to olives, two questions remain. Do felines usually request an olive or lemon peel when they order a dry martini? And, like James Bond Agent 007, do they prefer their martinis shaken, not stirred? I think I’ll ask Pitty Pat and Margaret, but separately so they don’t quarrel if their martini preferences conflict.

For Adoption at Last Hope, 3300 Beltagh Ave., Wantagh: “Marsh” is a marshmallow. He’s a sweet Cattle Dog mix, about two years old and 50 pounds. “Jackson,” a solid black cat, was rescued by the dumpster of a catering facility in Syosset. He was named for the Cat Whisperer Jackson Galaxy.

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