Does chlorine cause cats to become intoxicated?

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.

* * *

Matmail:

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.

* * *

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."

Pam Espalin writes that her cat "goes offfff on the smell of menthol, i.e., Tiger Balm and Newport cigarettes. Depending on her mood, she will also roll around on my freshly cleaned [with bleach] kitchen floor. Catnip does nothing...." When Alan Iglesias, now of Escondido, lived back East, his cat went "positively nuts for the tar-like substance used to seal our asphalt driveway. My shoes, covered with the stuff, could make my cat go out of its mind. Nowadays, she'll roll around and rub her face in my sweaty Spandex mountain-bike shorts."

A similar tale comes from Marcia Harlan in Encinitas. "We noticed Jasmine flopping around on the carpet, writhing in ecstasy, hind legs kicking furiously, chewing on a T-shirt. It was my brother Bobo's, and we could smell it from there, so we just let her have it. Godzilla loves ant spray (a guilty pleasure Mama doesn't allow her). Pearly Pierre goes crazy over parsley and my dirty laundry. He kneads on my clothes while drooling and making little humping motions. Frankly, it's a bit disconcerting." All three cats "go absolutely nuts over incense. They flop down and rub their sides on the basket, purring furiously and chew holes in the bags."

And in La Mesa, Jennifer Woodson's Argentina gets whacked out from "any kind of mentholated rub and chlorine. She stiffens, frantically noses into the item, rubs her head into it, snuffling and snorting in a frenzy. She will kick, bite, claw to get closer to the smell. It's sort of frightening. And she isn't playing around. She gets pretty deranged."

So, patterns are emerging. Some are explainable. The rest, including chlorine, well, the search continues....

* * *

To Ila, Mickey, and the other Carlsbad Schmidts, and the rest of you waiting with baitey breath, we're close to publishing our research findings. The Journal of Weird Cat Science has shown some interest. In addition to our two major scent groups -- the Clorox/Comet/pool chlorine cluster and the mint candy/toothpaste/menthol cigarette subset -- a third faction, smaller though no less bizarre, is taking shape: cats that love the smell of carrots. Consider these fairly typical field notes from ESG, via esg-mail, which also included a detailed report of the cat's embarrassing ecstasies over leather goods. "This hip, too-cool-to-be-touched cat will also make a fool of himself for baby peeled carrots. He rubs his face and drools great amounts at the scent of those orange beauties. Do you know how hard it is to get cat hair off wet carrots? Oy!"

* * *

INTRODUCTION Several months ago, the Matthew Alice Nuclear Research and Bail Bond Laboratories received an urgent plea from Ila Schmidt in Carlsbad. Her cat, Mickey, developed an unnatural attraction to things scented with chlorine. Ila's daughter, a water polo player, was the main target of Mickey's affections. He'd leap on her pool-scented hair and purr, knead, salivate, nip -- make a furry fool of himself. Bleach-based household cleanser would send Big Mick into catnip-like ecstasies. "Help us, Matthew, please!" sobbed a distraught Ila. "Why is he doing this?"

"Well, um, we dunno," said cat-brain experts statewide.

Then I guess I impugned Ila's field observations and was immediately pelted by various forms of communication, all with a common theme. "Hey, wiseguy, my cat does that too." In the ensuing weeks, we learned that aside from catnip, cats are turned on by the smell of mint (toothpaste, Life Savers, Ben-Gay), orange peel, leather, tar, a variety of plants (yerba buena, dandelions, celery seed, parsley), black olives, Irish Spring soap, Mary Kay "Journey" perfume, packaged incense, dangerous toxic stuff (Liquid Plumber, ant spray), and things reeking of body smells (sweaty T-shirts, ear wax on Q-Tips, dirty laundry in general). Strangest of all, we heard about three or four cats who got off on the scent of carrots.

Interesting, though unrelated to our study, were reports of cats that ate peanut butter, watermelon, cantaloupe, broccoli, and cheese-in-a-can and a few that were mad for licking photographs and vinyl blinds.

MATERIALS & METHODS One afternoon we toodled over to the home of three cats with a documented history of not liking me much to begin with. We figured they were average cats, and they were the greatest concentration of felines we knew of, saving us considerable gas and aggravation. Once cornered under the bed in the master suite, each cat was presented with a series of stimuli: a saucer containing a cotton ball saturated with a solution of Clorox and water, a saucer with cotton ball saturated with bottled water, and a saucer with a cotton ball sprinkled with catnip. And I'm virtually certain we remembered to mix up the presentation of the saucers to each cat to eliminate any bias of order. Responses were recorded on a memo pad that luckily happened to be next to the phone on the nightstand.

Since the cats were a pain to deal with, we decided to use dogs as a control group. Back home we rounded up four or five neighborhood pooches (two purebred Labrador retrievers, the rest mutts) and repeated the Clorox-water-catnip routine. This time we had the memo paper but had forgotten to grab the pencil, so we just tried to remember how everybody reacted.

RESULTS Cat #1 (water, Clorox, catnip): A slight cringing when presented with each stimulant. Cat #2 (Clorox, catnip, water): Tried to hide in dust ruffles when presented with Clorox; owner restrained it, resulting in catnip and water being presented to cat's tail end. Cat #3 (catnip, water, Clorox): Sniffed at catnip, growled at water and Clorox.

Dog #1 (Lab): Stared stupidly before, during, and after presentation of stimuli. Dog #2 (Lab): Sniffed catnip, stared stupidly at water and Clorox. Mutts ran off chasing something and were unavailable for testing.

DISCUSSION We puzzled over the results for a week or so and concluded that we are no longer willing to work with animals. So that left us pretty much back where we started. Pleas were sent to more specialists in animal behavior, chemoreception, neurobiology...to pet food manufacturers, to strangers on the street. The following summarizes most of their responses.

"Hmmm, fascinating. I haven't a clue. But let me know if you hear anything." There seems to be no profit in investigating the subtleties of the neurobiology of feline olfaction, so not very much is known in general, let alone some obscure corner like cats huffing Clorox or tar. We can take a swipe at the mint lovers. Catnip, a proven cat stimulant, is in the mint family, so it's a small leap to explain the behavior of those kitties. Reaction to catnip is genetically linked and not universal in Cat World.

We found two brave scientists, one at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Pennsylvania and one at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute, willing to follow kitty out on a very rickety limb -- speculation based on research with other animals. Both agree that the chlorine, per se, has nothing to do with the situation. Any stimulus capable of exciting certain scent receptors in a cat will elicit a sort of "hard-wired" response. Stimulus comes in one end, a particular neural pathway is set to buzzing, and the buzzing path leads to some behavioral center in the cat's brain. So we've got a bunch of cats whose olfactory receptors leading to the "drool, purr, space-out" center are tweaked by catnip and other bunches who can set a similar path in motion with chlorine or tar or old shoes or dirty T-shirts. So it's simply the fact that cats have in their behavioral repertoire a "drool, purr, space-out" cluster and nose-brain connections that allow various strong, volatile scents to stimulate it.

Things we never asked about but were told anyway: Some wild cats also react to chlorine and to ground allspice. Kodiak bears wallow in decayed whale. Apes go goofy over the smell of onions.

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I have two cats a brother and sister from the same litter. When I use chlorox spray cleaner they like to lick the surface that had been cleaned. There muxt be something they like in the chlorine smell, and apparently the taste too.

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