Life Science Catnip not just for getting high: It’s a mosquito repellent for cats
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Catnip not just for getting high: It’s a mosquito repellent for cats

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Feeling jaded with your entertainment options? Go to the pet store and buy some crushed catnip leaves or silver vine chew sticks, and also buy a cat if you don’t have one.

Or borrow one from a friend if you can’t responsibly commit yourself to caring for a vulnerable creature.

Break open the leaves or the sticks when you get home and the cat will carry on like Al Pacino face-planting in a mountain of cocaine as he famously did at the end of Scarface.

Gimme, gimme, gimme. 

And when the catnip kicks in, he’ll roll around on the floor in a euphoric haze. He’ll appear to see visions. He’ll just … well it’s just a hoot to watch.

After about 15 minutes, the cat lies around in an unresponsive, intoxicated state. And the fun is over.

That’s old news. What’s new?

A new study finds that when cats rub the catnip or silver vine over their faces and the top of their heads (so cute!) it’s not just to get a buzz – they’re also, on purpose, protecting themselves from mosquito bites.

In other words, catnip is like a spray of Aerogard – with psychotropic benefits.

And cats seem to know it, according to researchers from Iwate University, Nagoya University, Kyoto University and University of Liverpool.

How did the researchers test this idea?

The researchers first confirmed that the active ingredient in catnip and silver vine is a chemical called nepetalactol.

According to Professor Masao Miyazaki of Iwate University, a leader of the research project: “We applied nepetalactol to laboratory paper filters and tested with 18 laboratory and 17 feral cats. They displayed the typical response to silver vine.”

They also tested the chemical on big cats: Jaguar, Amur leopard and Eurasian lynx.

They, too, demonstrated a euphoric response, followed by zoning out.

“We concluded nepetalactol is responsible for the typical feline reaction to silver vine,” the authors say.

Further tests confirmed that “silver vine activates the nervous system that is responsible for the euphorigenic reaction”.

What about the mosquitoes?

Scientists have known for years that nepetalactone, an essential oil that serves as the feline attractant in catnip, has powerful insecticide properties.

A 2001 study from Iowa University found that nepetalactone is “about 10 times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET, the compound used in most commercial insect repellents”.

The finding was reported at the 222nd national meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Two years earlier, the same researchers discovered that catnip also repels cockroaches.

The new study confirmed that nepetalactol serves as an insecticide as well as a euphoric.

But the question remained: Did cats know that catnip and silver vine had these protective properties?

To examine whether cats “purposefully transfer nepetalactol to their bodies, the researchers placed paper filters laced with nepetalactol on different parts of the cat cage (floor, walls and ceiling)”.

Although cats rubbed their faces and heads on the paper regardless of where the nepetalactol paper was placed, “they did not show the typical rolling when the paper was placed on a wall or ceiling”.

This seems to suggest that cats need to have an all-over body immersion to experience euphoria.

The scientists concluded that the most important function of rubbing behaviour was to apply the chemical to these parts of feline fur. So maybe the function of all that face-planting is to primarily protect the cat against pests.

Well, yes, maybe. But it doesn’t necessarily mean the cat is acting with those intentions.

The attractant properties of the plant might simply fool the cat into protecting itself.

So where does this leave us? More experiments with cats and crazy-making substances. Yay!

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