Several years ago I was contacted by Susan, one of my radio listeners in New Hampshire, with a question that remains a fascinating phenomenon.
“My two year old cat Juno steals Kalamata olives. Not only does he steal them, he will scream and beg for them if he sees me eating them or smells them in the room. He’ll gnaw on my fingers if he knows I’ve held one.
He is normally a very composed furry gentleman. Once Juno secures an olive he literally goes wild — he shakes with excitement and devours the olive in an ecstatic frenzy. I’ve never witnessed such behavior.
Days after consuming an olive and, with a wistful look on his face, Juno will even lick the floor where it once was. Is this a nutrition issue? Is my kitty missing an essential nutrient in his diet? Juno receives three small cans of food daily and has a water fountain which is always on and clean, as well as fresh tap water placed in a dish daily.
We keep a steady crop of cat grass available, and he gets dried protein treats about once a month, for fun. I’d welcome your thoughts, Tracie. Should I give him olives, or refrain? What could be driving this obsession of his?”
“Green olives (Olea europaea) and pimentos (Capsicum annuum) contain isoprenoids, which are structurally similar to the active chemical in catnip methylcyclopentane monoterpene nepetalactone.
The chemical in the essential oil of these plants binds to receptors in the cat’s vomeronasal organ and has a similar effect on the same receptors that are responsible for getting her high on catnip.
The vomeronasal organ is what cats (and most other animals, with the exception of humans) use to sense pheromones. This part of a kitty’s nose/brain is where the nepetalactone in catnip stimulates pheromone receptors, accounting for the mind-altering effect a cat can experience, resulting in “space-kitty.”
I remembered that back when I first got the question about Juno’s olive obsession, I had put the question to Jackson Galaxy (proud to say I knew him way before he achieved fame and acclaim as Cat Daddy). Funnily enough, he came back with the same explanation about pussycats and olives, with a more down-to-earth explanation. Jackson said, “Believe it or not, this story is commonplace. Reason being, both in varieties of green olives, like Kalamatas, and in pimentos, there are high levels of certain compounds that actually resemble pheromones.
There’s a lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo that I’m sure nobody (like me!) is interested in reading, but the bottom line is that these olives have components in their essential oils that cause a reaction very similar to catnip. Yes, Juno is ‘olive-high.’ And no, there is nothing “bad” in kalamatas, although they are pretty well empty in terms of the nutrition they offer. Susan may be trying to make a connection between what Juno might lack in his diet and the olive-eating (like when animals eat dirt, for example), when in reality Juno is just looking for a cheap thrill!”
There appears to be no toxicity to olives (although one of my listeners mentioned diarrhea) but they don’t have the Happy Making effect on every cat. Another treat you can consider for your cat – that is also much-needed environmental enrichment – is to put some freeze dried protein treats like Halo’s Liv-a-Littles inside a good dispenser toy and let your kitty put her brain to good use trying to extricate the tasty morsels!
Tracie Hotchner is the author of THE DOG BIBLE: Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know and THE CAT BIBLE: Everything Your Cat Expects You to Know. She is also a renowned pet radio host and producer, having spent 7 years on the Martha Stewart Channel of Sirius/XM with CAT CHAT® and even longer with her award-winning NPR radio show DOG TALK® (and Kitties, Too!) that continues to broadcast in the Hamptons and the Berkshires. Her most recent accomplishment is the pet talk radio network she has created on the Internet called The Radio Pet Lady Network.