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Study sheds light on one of the biological functions of catnip

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As its name suggests, catnip is a very attractive plant for cats for whom it has euphoric effects. Recently, one of its biological functions was investigated.

Catnip leaves no feline indifferent

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) drives our favorite felines a little crazy. In contact with him, they have indeed frantic behavior : sniffing, licking, chewing, rubbing the body against the plant, shaking the head or rolling on the back. The matatabi or silver vine (Actinidia polygama) has similar effects on these animals. Until today, these behaviors related to these plants were associated with play (or mating) behaviors where we also observe frantic behaviors.

However, a study published in the journal Advances in science January 20, 2021 revealed one of the biological functions of catnip and silver vine. These plants protect cats, according to a team of Japanese and British researchers against some deadly pests susceptible to spread by mosquito bites. However, the plants in question simply repel these unwanted mosquitoes.

Our cats are not the only ones to strongly appreciate these plants. Indeed, it is also the case of other felines such as lynx, leopards and other jaguars as well as certain wild animals such as lions. This makes it possible to imagine that this behavior has an origin in connection with the evolution, having lasted for millions of years during which species have deviated from each other.

Credit: Derek Bridges / Flickr

Activation of the μ-opioid system

In order to arrive at their conclusions, the scientists tried to identify the ingredient inducing the frantic behaviors, in particular in the silver vine. They isolated substances using extracts from the leaves and used pieces of absorbent paper in order to find the answer by elimination. Completely unknown until today, the ingredient in question is none other than nepetalactol. This substance is indeed the one that most clearly generated the frenzied behavior in cats, regardless of the position of the pieces of paper in their cage. However, the reactions were more intense when the position of certain papers allowed cats to rub it thoroughly and therefore impregnate the coat.

After discovering nepetalactol, scientists tried to understand the biological mechanism originally this reaction in felines. After blood tests, they claimed that the silver vine activated the μ-opioid system in these animals, as do some psychotropic drugs in humans.


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