Dear Matthew Alice:
My daughter is on a swim team and also plays water polo. Almost every evening she comes home with her hair wet from the pool water. This drives our cat, Mickey, completely wild. He rubs his face over her head and even tries to playfully bite her scalp. I've also noticed that he gets "drugged" like this when I'm using certain cleaning products. Is it something about the chlorine? If so, what is it about chlorine that intoxicates him almost the same way that catnip does?
-- Ila Schmidt, Carlsbad
Okay, we give up. The inscrutable Mickey Schmidt has baffled vets from here to UC-Davis with his antics. But if you keep after 'em long enough, nip at their heels, yap loud enough, you can get a scientist to offer an educated guess, even when they admit there's no solid science to back it up. So consider this bit of speculation from a cat-owning vet. (When the idea was dragged on a string in front of a couple of other vets, they didn't pounce on it eagerly, but they didn't throw up fur balls either, so...) Fact: Other than the active ingredient in catnip, there's no known chemical odor that stimulates cats' pleasure centers and sends them into goofyville. If Mickey's snorting Comet, well, he may not be a cat at all. Could someday be a fact if we can get the research funding: The chewing/rubbing may be an attempt to rid your daughter of the alien smell of chlorine and reestablish Mickey's "ownership" of your daughter's head. (Cats have scent glands around their mouths. When they rub against things, they're marking their territories.) Mickey knows how your daughter is supposed to smell, and it's not like chlorine. The vet who offered this notion said her cat behaves in a similar way when her wet hair smells like shampoo. A fact around the Alice house: This is what you get for owning one.
Chewing on wet hair or even dry hair, for that matter, isn't unusual for some cats. An extension of grooming or nursing or hunting instincts, probably. Behavioral, not chemically stimulated. Mickey just gets some sort of weird kick out of it, but he's not likely drugged. Without more details, the vet wouldn't even speculate on the cleaning chemicals scenario, except to say if you don't keep Mickey away from them, you may not have to worry about him much longer.
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In your June 11, 1998, column, your supposed experts told you, "Other than the active ingredient in catnip, there's no known chemical odor that stimulates cats' pleasure centers and sends them into goofyville." Well, we've got three cats. All of them become a bit more playful around catnip. One of them becomes absolutely stoned on the smell of menthol -- nuzzling, rolling, biting, and walking like a drunk -- nearly exactly the symptoms Ila Schmidt describes when her cat, Mickey, smells chlorine. (This came as a surprise, especially the biting part, the first time we used muscle rub and the cat was in the room!) That's one out of three cats in my (admittedly small) sample that is affected by something other than catnip, plus one other reader describing an occurrence. Hence, I am skeptical that this phenomenon is all that rare. So, if nothing other than the nepetalactone, active ingredient in catnip, is "known" by experts to affect cats this way, then either menthol has a whole lot of nepetalactone or there are gaps in what the experts know. Since neither Ila nor I have a "Ph.D." after our name, surely our observations are unscientific, unreliable, and bogus; the textbooks MUST be right. On the other hand, my cat's menthol-induced intoxication is totally reproducible. How open are your experts to adding to what is known?
-- Dan Konigsbach, Tierrasanta
A little more anecdotal evidence and a good grant writer, and I think we can fund this, Dan. Catnip susceptibility is a genetic trait in cats. (Not all cats react to it.) Vets speculate the odor stimulates endorphin-like brain chemicals. Maybe there's a rare chlorine gene too, and menthol. So, Alicelanders, if your cat responds to odd chemical smells, let us know (and please indicate if the cat loves or ignores catnip too). Here's our big chance to fill what is clearly a shocking gap in cat science. Direct all relevant personal observations to "Project Mickey Schmidt," and we'll dust off the junior chemistry set.
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PROJECT MICKEY SCHMIDT, week four: Cats -- go figure. In our quest for felines that wig out over smells other than catnip (especially bleach or pool chlorine), we've learned of cats who eat beans, broccoli, and watermelon. Not critical to our data base, but appropriately weird anyway. And Jeff in Encinitas tested Woodrow on Clorox and catnip with no results, noting that the tabby actually avoids tap water until the chlorine has evaporated but "can smell peanut butter a mile away." Thanks, Jeff. Woody's obviously way too normal to interest us at the moment. On the other hand...
Sami jo and (the late) Terror, "I had to lock her out of the room when I used bleach in my mop water or she would roll all over my wet floors leaving a path of fur behind. Liquid Plumber, some hand lotions, and toothpaste would also set her off...." Then there's Jamie Reeves, downtown, and Smokey Joe, who "gets tore down from the smell of Journey perfume from Mary Kay. He hits the roof, meowing until he is slunk down between couch cushions in ecstasy." A female Siamese belonging to one "Ignutus" of Scripps Ranch "goes into feline Cloud Nine over Irish Spring soap! When I wash my hands, bathe myself, or otherwise ablute, she is all over me...." Scooter and Matty write proudly that Kanoa "is truly a pompous bitch...[but] when I lay carrots on the counter, she rubs her entire body all over them while purring thunderously, salivating like crazy, [though] she doesn't seem to want to eat them.... Our other two cats do not suffer this affliction." From Sue Beckman, Del Mar, "Two of my cats have been very fond of celery seed. They'd eat a little, snuff it up, roll in it, go all dreamy."