Cats and catnip go together hand-in-paw - after all, they are literally in the name of the plant! Whether it's a fresh catnip plant we keep in our gardens or dried and stuffed into cat toys, most cat parents have a stash of catnip in their homes because let's face it, most cats just LOVE catnip.
We have all seen their hilarious reactions this minty green herb, whether it's passing out on their backs, or inciting a case of the zoomies. They just can't get enough of that 'nip!
But why do they feel the need to roll around in it or rub their faces in it? A professor Masao Miyazaki of Japan’s Iwate University believes he has discovered the reason.
While studying silver vine (Actinidia Polygama), which contains common chemicals to catnip (Nepeta Cataria) and echo catnip reactions in felines, the scientists found that cats did indeed have raised endorphin levels that indicated their opioid system had been triggered. So yes, cats are enjoying a (harmless) euphoric high when interacting with catnip.
Miyazaki’s research also found that humans recognized cats love of silver vine going back to more than 300 years ago in Japanese literature.
Nevertheless, the scientists surmised that cat’s reactions to catnip or silver vine might provide an evolutionary benefit in addition to the experienced euphoria.
Using house cats as well as their larger relatives including jaguars, leopards and lynxes, they introduced silver vine and kept note of which felines rubbed their fur with it.
They then counted how often mosquitos landed on the felines and determined that the cats that rubbed their fur with silver vine were less likely to be bothered by the disease carrying pests. Mosquitos can be carriers of many diseases including malaria, dengue and yellow fever, Zika and west Nile virus. Catnip has the same effect when rubbed on us humans, and likely the same effect for our feline friends.
If you’ve tried to no avail to get your cat interested in catnip, don’t worry. They’re not weird or broken! One in three cats actually do not respond to catnip, according to a 2017 study. However, about 80 percent of all cats will respond to a catnip alternative known as silver vine.