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Why cats go crazy for strong-smelling menthol ointments and creams

Many cats love catnip, which is part of the mint family. Many plants in the mint family contain an essential oil from which menthol is made, making cats go nuts for it.
Many cats love catnip, which is part of the mint family. Many plants in the mint family contain an essential oil from which menthol is made, making cats go nuts for it.
Eve-Angeline Mitchell

Does your cat come running when she smells Icy Hot on your sore shoulder? Does she go and lick your shirt where Mineral Ice has rubbed off? Does she roll around on your dirty laundry, that smells of Ben-Gay, like she's found a gigantic pile of catnip? If so, you're not alone. Despite the very strong smells of these products, it's not uncommon for cats to be attracted to them because of the menthol they contain.

Menthol comes from plants in the mint family, which is also where catnip comes from. The essential oil in catnip contains a compound called nepetalactone, which causes the typical head-over-heels reaction we find so endearing. That essential oil is also present in other plants in the mint family.

That essential oil is also where menthol comes from, along with other products, which means menthol contains the same compounds that induce that cute, and mystifying, euphoric reaction in our cats. Researchers think that the essential oils mimic "happy" pheromones, which stimulate the parts of your cat's brain that respond to those pheromones. They aren't completely sure, yet, of just what the neurological reaction is.

Cats that enjoy menthol this way might lick your clothing where the cream rubs off, or they might try and lick it off your skin. They might go after your hands even after you've washed them, because they can still smell the menthol. In some cases, cats actually get aggressive, trying to get to the source of the tantalizing smell. If you regularly sleep with these creams on and wonder why your cat seems to attack you after you go to bed, that's probably why. You may want to consider keeping your cat out of the bedroom if this is a problem.

Because of the attractiveness of menthol, it's very important that you keep menthol tobacco away from your cats. The nicotine in tobacco, along with the other toxins, can easily poison her. You shouldn't let her lick ointment off of you either, although the residue she gets from licking your shirt probably won't harm her.