Feline groovy: Catnip provides more than a pleasurable high for your kitty

January 25, 2021

The rapturous and intoxicated behavior that cats exhibit when they are gifted with catnip is a good enough reason to keep it in stock for most pet owners. But now, a joint research project conducted in Japan and the UK has found that when felines respond to catnip they aren’t just getting high; there’s a side benefit. Catnip helps protect them from mosquitoes, The Charlotte Observer reports.

It’s all thanks to a substance called nepetalactol, which can be extracted from catnip leaves and from those of a related plant, silver vine. The team learned that this is the substance that causes the crazed rolling and rubbing cats do when they sniff the herbs.

And calling the fuss a “high” isn’t a figure of speech, either. The researchers discovered the substance activates the part of cats’ nervous systems responsible for “euphoric” effects, similar to those found in and experienced by people on drugs.

It’s an event that can last anywhere between five and 15 minutes, according to the study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, and is typically followed by a period of unresponsiveness.

After applying a synthetic version of nepetalactol on laboratory paper strips and giving them to cats in the study—both domestic and wild—researchers documented them rubbing, licking, and rolling around, just as they do with catnip-filled toys, the Observer reports. They even tested the substance on larger felines, including a jaguar, leopard and lynx.

But the team didn’t stop there.

Scientists have always been aware of catnip’s ability to ward off thirsty insects, so the researchers placed more nepetalactol-slathered paper strips on the floor, walls and ceilings of some cat cages and unleashed a dozen or so mosquitoes.

Cats that rubbed themselves on the chemical substance were gorged on less than those that did not have the natural repellent on their fur. The same happened when cats were placed in “a more natural setting,” the researchers said.

“We found that the cats’ reaction to silver vine is a chemical defense against mosquitoes, and perhaps against viruses and parasitic insects,” project leader Dr. Masao Miyazaki, a veterinary scientist at Iwate University in Japan, said in a news release.

The research team agrees there’s more to be discovered about catnip and mosquito activity. In future studies, the team hopes to find answers by identifying the gene responsible for cats’ reactions to the plants.

Research contact: @theobserver

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