Most cat caregivers know that domestic cats get a non-addictive high from silvervine and catnip. Silvervine is also called matatabi (又旅) or Japanese catnip. It is a climbing plant that grows in the mountainous regions of China, Japan, Korea and eastern Russia at an elevation of 1,600-6,200 feet.
We also know that domestic cats like to roll around on silvervine leaves or powder and catnip. Sometimes they eat it! It doesn’t do any harm.
RELATED: The Cat Drugs of Catnip and Matatabi and there are some articles on catnip at the end of the article.
Silvervine contains a plant iridoid called nepetalactol. This is the active ingredient which gets cats high. And it’s important to know that wild cats are also affected in the same way. You will find other cat species such as lions, jaguars, lynx, leopards and bobcats enjoying the euphoric state induced by silvervine or catnip. The scientists stated that 13 of 21 species of cat tested had a positive response to this compound.
However, a study suggests that cats roll around on silvervine in order to rub nepetalactol onto their bodies to protect them against mosquitoes.
It seems to be described as an “adaptive behaviour” to protect against mosquito bites. This would seem to be the origin of this squirming and rolling around when they come into contact with silvervine.
Another study found that nepetalactol is about 10 times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET. Do humans rub silvervine onto their arms and legs when they go to countries where there are mosquitoes? I don’t know but it is a highly effective mosquito repellent.
The study that I’m referring to: The characteristic response of domestic cats to plant iridoids allows them to gain chemical defense against mosquitoes (link to study), concluded as follows:
“This is convincing evidence that the characteristic rubbing and rolling response functions to transfer plant chemicals that provide mosquito repellency to cats.”
They found that the iridoid nepetalactol is the compound in the leaves of silvervine which induced the rubbing and rolling of cats on the leaves.
They tested mosquito-repellent properties of nepetalactol against a particular species of mosquito namely A. albopictus, but they suggest that it’s effective against other species of mosquito. The scientists said that they don’t know why mosquitoes dislike nepetalactol. They think it might be the smell. But in their tests, they anaesthetised some cats and put the compound on their heads and they found that far less mosquitoes ended up on the heads of these cats. Comment: I don’t like the idea of anaesthetising cats to carry out this test because anaesthesia is inherently dangerous.
Cats positively make an effort to rub against silvervine. When they put cats in a cage with the silvervine at the top of the cage they made a positive effort to get up to it and rub their faces against it (see the image at the top of this page).
For example, they state:
“When papers [containing nepetalactol] were more difficult to contact on the cage ceiling, five of seven subject cats stood on their hind legs, held on to the ceiling mesh with their fore paws, and rubbed their faces and heads on nepetalactol-paper more frequently than on control-paper.”
The conclusion that I have is that cats evolved to use silvervine is a mosquito-repellent and they roll around in it when it grows in the wild to repel mosquitoes and not to have some fun and enter a state of euphoria. It appears to me that this is a side effect.
I think this is quite important because the current thinking is that cats are attracted to silvervine and catnip because it makes them feel good. Perhaps they are attracted to it because they have an inborn motivation to rub themselves with it to repel mosquitoes. That may be the primary motivator rather than, as mentioned, to get high.
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