Catnip and silver vine aren’t just a good time

Cats go crazy for catnip and silver vine, but for a much more practical reason than you think. Image by Doug Greenberg (CC BY 2.0)

When you mention catnip, most people associate it with cats and not with the other uses of the herb. Along with the silver vine, it seems like a magic plant that completely changes how cats behave. We know that when cats smell catnip and silver vine, they purr, roll around and it just seems like they are intoxicated. However, these herbs might attract cats for another reason than just simple euphoria. 

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) plants are popular in herb gardens and can grow like a weed. Cats, including non-domesticated lions and tigers, react to an oil called nepetalactone in the leaves and stems of catnip[1]. Those cats that don’t respond to catnip, usually respond to silver vine (Actinidia polygama). Silver vine is more potent than catnip because it has nepetalactone and an extra chemical nepetalactol.

So, how do these herbs work? The reaction to catnip starts with the nose – a single sniff can change how a cat behaves. Nepetalactone and nepetalactol molecules can stimulate neurons by binding to their receptors inside a cat’s nose. This way, a neural signal is sent to the olfactory bulb in the brain, which receives information on smells. Then the signal alters the activity in the amygdala, which manages emotional responses, and the hypothalamus, which is a master regulator. In response, cats exhibit intense reactions – rub their heads and bodies on catnip, lick and chew the leaves and roll around[2].

But the changes in the cat’s behaviour that we can see might not tell the whole story. In a study this year, researchers extracted nepetalactol from silver vine and infused filter paper with the chemical[3]. After giving cats the filter paper, mosquitos were let into the room. And it was found that fewer mosquitos attacked cats who rubbed against the chemically infused paper. It is thought that the rubbing and rolling transfers the chemicals from the plant leaves onto the cat fur. Then the chemicals in silver vine and catnip ward off mosquitoes.

While these findings need further investigation, they give an insight into the complexity behind the love cats have for catnip and silver vine. These herbs don’t just make cats euphoric, like in humans who use recreational drugs. Rather, cats have evolved this reaction to the plants to defend themselves against mosquitos – one of the world’s most harmful insects.

Edited by Liam Butler
Copy-edited by Claire Thomson





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