For decades, it has been popularly known that catnip drives cats crazy. When they smell it, they scramble over it wherever it is. Now science has discovered that this pleasurable “high” is similar to what people feel when they take opioids and that it is beneficial for feline health.
Both catnip and silver vine – also known as silver creeper – generate a powerful high in cats, a kind of “intoxication,” scientists say. The reason? It seems that iridoids – a chemical that plants have to protect themselves from aphids – work like a “drug” in cats.
That’s right: iridoids activate the opioid system in cats in a similar way to how heroin and morphine do in people, as explained in the journal Science. In addition, it protects felines against mosquito bites.
The physiological effect of these compounds in cats was studied by biologist Masao Miyazaki, from the University of Iwate, Japan, who spent five years conducting different experiments with plants and their chemicals.
Why do cats like catnip and silver vine?
- Because it has nepetalactol, the chemical component that causes feline high.
The researchers studied the behavior of 25 domestic cats and came to that conclusion. What did they do? They placed the substance in 10 paper bags and presented them together with bags that only contained a saline substance. Most of the animals only showed interest in the nepetalactol bags.
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To ensure that this substance was the one that definitely attracted the felines, they repeated the experiment with 30 wild cats and a leopard, two lynxes and two jaguars in the Japanese zoos of Tennoji and Oji.
“Big or small, the felines surrendered to the substance, rubbing their heads and bodies in the patches for an average of 10 minutes. In contrast, dogs and mice that were tested showed no interest in the compound,” as stated by Science.
The researchers also measured beta-endorphins – one of the hormones that naturally relieve pain and induce pleasure by activating the body’s opioid system and is known as “happiness hormone” – in the bloodstream of five cats for 5 minutes before and after exposure to nepetalactol. The result? The hormone rose significantly after exposure to the substance.
- Because the substance that “drugs” cats also works as an insect repellent.
Another reason cats go crazy – beyond pure pleasure – is because nepetalactol has insect repellent properties.
They corroborated that when the felines are rubbed with catnip or silver vine, they are applying an insect repellent.