What is it with the catnip plant and cats? If you have seen a cat experience catnip, you know that it makes them go wild as they rub in, chew, roll, and lick it. A mere catnip scent can send felines into a rolling, licking, plant shredding rage. It has even become widely accepted that the catnip and the Asian silvervine plant have intoxicative properties. However, this is not the sole reason cats actively love rubbing on and chewing on the plant. Scientific study has revealed that when cats chew and damage catnip, the plant produces much higher amounts of strong insect repellents. Here is an exclusive review on cats chewing catnip produces more insect-repelling power.
What Is Catnip?
The catnip plant, scientifically referred to as Nepeta cataria, is known to have intoxicative properties. Their psychoactive quality to felines results from the nepetalactone compound that binds olfactory receptors in the cat’s nose. The compound activates neurological responses similar to how cats react to sexual pheromones. Cats will always rub themselves on catnip, rolling around, pawing, licking, and even chewing it. However, cats that eat the plant sometimes experience sleepiness, drooling, and purring.
Cats Chewing Catnip Causes More Insect-Repelling Power
Putting toxicity aside for some time, scientists believe cats might have evolved to love catnip to protect themselves from insects and pests. According to an iScience chemical analysis, the destruction of catnip plant by cats amplifies the natural defenses against insects by the release of Nepetalacol and nepetalactone. These compounds trigger a chemical receptor that boosts sensations such as itch and pain. A scientific report states that crushed-up leaves produce more volatile compounds called iridoids that act as insect repellants than intact leaves. The increased emissions encourage cats to continue rolling around in the plant remains, covering themselves with the natural bug spray. Fascinating new research from Japan shows that there might be another reason that makes cats love catnip so much. The cat’s behavior toward catnip and Silverline plant is so pervasive that it led Masao Miyazaki, a biologist, and animal behavior researcher, to research what was happening. Miyazaki started his career in veterinary medicine and developed an interest in how natural chemicals such as pheromones drive the instinctual behaviors of animals.
In a scientific study, Masao Miyazaki and his colleagues at Iwate University in Morioka, Japan, together with his colleagues, analyzed the chemistry of catnip (Nepeta Cataria) and silver vine (Actinidia polygama), a common Asian plant with a similar euphoric effect on cats. Both these plants produce iridoids, naturally repelling insects from snacking on leaves. The Researchers found that catnip released more than twenty times more iridoids when crushed, while the silver vine released about ten times more iridoids. More iridoids were produced, but their compositions also adjusted in ways that encouraged the cats to chew on them more. Miyazaki found that Nepetalacol occupies more than 90% of total iridoids in intact leaves, but this drops to around 45% in damaged leaves as other iridoids highly increase. These adjusted iridoid components in damaged leaves promote a much more extended response in cats. According to Science News, these higher emissions of these compounds also seem to encourage the cats to roll around the damaged plants more, indicating this cat’s behavior protects them from insects.
Catnip Chemicals Are Great Mosquito Repellent
In a previous study, Miyazaki and his team presented that the compounds in a catnip plant effectively repel Aedes albopictus mosquitoes. This study has revealed that when cats damage the catnip plant by rolling, rubbing, chewing, and licking, it makes the repellent properties more effective. After comparing cats exposed to catnip and those not exposed, they found that the Nepetalacol compound on the plant made a significant difference in keeping away the mosquitoes. These research findings showed that damaged catnip plants could offer effective mosquito repellents for anyone, not just cats. Miyazaki rubbed himself with damaged catnip leaves and stated that the mosquito did not bite his arms. The modification of iridoids in damaged catnip leaves makes it more repellent to mosquitoes even at a lower concentration. The study also found that for both catnip and silvervine, laboratory-prepared iridoid cocktails that mimic those of damaged catnip and silvervine repelled more mosquitoes than chemical solutions that reflected those of intact leaves.
The researchers also presented cats with two dishes, one with damaged leaves and another with intact catnip leaves. Without hesitation, the cats went for the damaged leaf container, playing and licking the dish against it. To see if the cats reacted specifically to these compounds, the cats were given dishes with pure Nepetalacol and nepetalactone. Miyazaki found that cats display the same behavior as iridoid cocktails and natural plants, except that they don’t chew. Felines will lick chemicals on the plastic dish, roll over and rub on the dish. Even when iridoid cocktails were applied to the bottom of the dish and covered by a punctured plastic cover, cats still showed the behavior of chewing and licking without directly contacting the chemicals. This means chewing and licking is an instinctive behavior in cats prompted by olfactory stimulation of iridoids. The aggressive behavior of felines toward the catnip plant helps release higher amounts of the insect-repelling compound. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the compounds from catnip could be useful in developing more effective and safer insect repellants for human use although they might attract cats as well. However, this study did not prove that repelling insects is why cats love chewing catnip. The behavior might just be a coincidence. Next, Miyazaki and the team want to research the gene that triggers the cat’s response to silvervine and catnip. Miyazaki hopes that future studies will answer the key questions on why this cat’s response is limited to the Felidae species and why some felines don’t respond to the plants.