The science behind catnip: Study reveals why cats go crazy for catnip

Cat nip

The scent of catnip makes most cats go a bit wild — and new research suggests there could be a very good reason for this behaviour.

Scientists in Japan have found that when cats lick, chew and rub their bodies on the plants it helps to release mosquito-repelling chemicals.

The study, published in the journal iScience, revealed that when cats damage the leaves of catnip (Nepeta cataria) and its Asian counterpart silver vine (Actinidia polygama), much higher amounts of strong insect repellents are released, indicating that the cats’ behaviour protects them from pests.

Crazy Cat

Catnip and silver vine leaves contain the compounds nepetalactol and nepetalactone, iridoids that protect the plants from pests. To see how cats’ behaviour was affecting the chemicals released by the plants, lead author Masao Miyazaki, an animal behaviour researcher at Iwate University, worked with chemists at Nagoya University.

“We found that physical damage of silver vine by cats promoted the immediate emission of total iridoids, which was 10-fold higher than from intact leaves,” Miyazaki said.

In previous work, Miyazaki and his team showed that these compounds effectively repel mosquitoes. Now the team has shown that when cats damage the plants by rubbing, rolling, licking and chewing, the repellent properties are even more effective. The diversification of iridoids in damaged silver vine leaves makes it more repellent to mosquitoes at low concentration.

The chemicals from catnip and silver vine could prove useful for developing safer and more effective insect repellents for human use, Smithsonian magazine reports. However, they might also have the side-effect of attracting cats. “If someone does not like cats or has allergy to cats,” Miyazaki said, “they should not use iridoids as repellents!”

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