Plants in the extensive mint family can exude a pleasant perfume or a noxious stench -- it depends on your cat and the kind of mint she's huffing. Of the thousands of plants in the Lamiaceae family, four have particular pertinence to curious kitties.
The mint family includes many common herbs, but as far as your kitty is concerned, it only needs one: catnip, also called cat mint. Obviously, most cats love catnip. Not only do they not dislike the smell, it attracts them and then gets them high. Nepetalactone is this mint's tongue-tying and kitty-brain-frying active ingredient. It induces mild euphoria -- you may know it as "the crazies" -- by mimicking a kitty sex pheromone. Catmint sensitivity is a dominant genetic trait -- some cats are, sadly, immune -- and kicks in between weaning around 8 weeks of age and kitty puberty.
Peppermint is probably the minty fragrance you're most familiar with. Some kitties dislike the smell and with good reason: peppermint contains salicylate, a chemical also found in aspirin and poisonous to cats. Other cats are attracted to peppermint because it contains compounds similar to nepetalactone. If your kitty is attracted, keep in mind that eating it could be harmful to her but danger varies based on type of exposure. The actual plant, such as the fresh herb or a dry tea bag, contains a low level of salicylate, while peppermint oil, such as for aromatherapy or in candy, presents a concentrated and toxic formulation.
Spearmint and Other Mints
Spearmint and hybrid mints available as teas, seasonings and candy contain lower levels of salicylate than peppermint and aren't as toxic to cats. Cats may dislike the smell or be attracted to the nepetalactone-mimicking chemicals they share with catnip -- it depends on your individual kitty and her sensitivity as a catnip "user.”
Though commonly considered a "mint" flavor, wintergreen is actually a woody, evergreen herb unrelated to the mint family. Wintergreen contains a high level of salicylate. To make matters worse for your kitty, it's almost always found in oil form, because the highly volatile fragrance wears out as the plant dries up, which makes the dry herb difficult to prepare. This "mint" is what most people mean when they claim cats dislike mint fragrance, and some go so far as to recommend dipping cloths or other items in oil of wintergreen to make cat repellent. Don't do it. Cats who avoid this smell have an evolutionary advantage: they're avoiding a poison. Any exposure puts your kitty at risk of poisoning.
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Peppermint Oil
- Optimum Choices: Safe Essential Oil Usage with Animals
- Chemical and Engineering News: Catnip - The Key Chemical Responsible for the Herb's Frisk-Inducing Effect on Felines is Nepetalactone
- North Carolina State University Consumer Horticulture: Herbs - List by Scientific Name
- ASPCA: Peppermint Oil
Angela Libal began writing professionally in 2005. She has published several books, specializing in zoology and animal husbandry. Libal holds a degree in behavioral science: animal science from Moorpark College, a Bachelor of Arts from Sarah Lawrence College and is a graduate student in cryptozoology.