Cat owners flood the internet with videos of their kitties euphorically rolling and flipping out over catnip-filled bags and toys. But exactly how catnip—and a substitute, known as silver vine—produces this feline high has long been a mystery. Now, a study suggests the key intoxicating chemicals in the plants activate cats’ opioid systems much like heroin and morphine do in people. Moreover, the study concludes that rubbing the plants protects the felines against mosquito bites.
“This study essentially has revealed a new potential mosquito repellent” by examining the “pharmaceutical knowledge” of cats, says Emory University biologist Jacobus de Roode, who did not participate in the study.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) and silver vine (Actinidia polygama) both contain chemical compounds called iridoids that protect the plants against aphids and are known to be the key to the euphoria produced in cats. To determine the physiological effect of these compounds, Iwate University biologist Masao Miyazaki spent 5 years running different experiments using the plants and their chemicals.