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Why do cats love catnip?

Study find cats rub and roll against these plants transferring compounds known as iridoids to their fur that repels mosquitoes

Cats show a rather unusual response toward catnip and silver vine leaves. As you might have seen, they like to lick and chew the plants, as well as roll over the plants while rubbing their face and head against them. Here’s a full video of cats going crazy for catnip:

Although it might look like your cat is just having a blast while being playful, a recent study carried out in Japan shows that they do this for a practical reason. The truth is the rubbing and rolling does in fact protect them from mosquitos.

The data from the study clearly shows that the breaking of silver vine and catnip promotes the emission of plant iridoids. These are compounds that are known to be repellent to a broad range of insects, including mosquitoes and flies. During the experiment, bowls containing iridoid concoctions were covered by a pierced plastic cover to see if cats continued to try and rub themselves against it. Cats did in fact continue to lick and chew even though they couldn’t directly contact the chemicals. According to lead researcher, Tamako Miyazaki, this means that licking and chewing is an instinctive behavior prompted by the smell of iridoids present in silver vines and catnips.

The study findings also suggest that changes in the amount and composition of iridoids in silver vine leaves in response to feline licking and chewing are because of the physical damage inflicted on the leaves. In other words, the more the cats damage the leaves, the more iridoids they extract from them. That’s why in addition to the crumpling and tearing of catnip and silver vine leaves by chewing, cats also use their tongues which have sharp spine-shaped papillae on their surfaces that can also scratch the leaves and cause damage, hence why they also like to lick the plants.

As the authors of the research concluded: “Plant-damaging behavior alongside self-anointing, might play an important role in gaining pest-repellency in other mammals as well as cats”. Perhaps we humans should also start rubbing against catnip to avoid mosquito bites.

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