Cat lovers the world over know how much cats love catnip, so much so that it almost goes without saying. This minty plant is often added to cat toys and cat treats to create a fun, euphoric "high" for our furry feline friends to stimulate exercise and provide environmental enrichment. But did you know that catnip is also used to repel insects, especially mosquitos?
In fact, new research may just have cats jumping for joy come mosquito season as their humans head to grab more catnip. Recent research from Northwestern University and Lund University has revealed that catnip compounds are at least as effect as synthetic insect repellents like DEET.
"Catnip and its active ingredient, Nepetalactone, have been used for millennia to ward off insect pests, at least since the time of Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AD)," said Marcus C. Stensmyr, associate professor at Lund University and co-corresponding author. "But why Catnip is so potent on such a broad range of insect species has remained unknown."
Researchers have finally uncovered why it is so effective: catnip activates an ancient irritant receptor in animals ranging from flatworms to fruit flies to humans. Specifically, catnip and its active ingredient, Nepetalactone, activate the TRPA1 receptor (commonly called the "wasabi receptor"), which senses environmental irritants like pain and itch.
What makes catnip so special is that unlike wasabi compounds that activate the TRPA1 receptor in humans, catnip appears to selectively trigger the same receptor in insects. "This explains why humans are indifferent to it, and provides a serious advantage for its use as a repellent," said Marco Gallio, an associate professor of neurobiology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.
Mosquitos are a vector for disease, and finding more accessible and less expensive methods for controlling their population is important, especially in developing countries where mosquito-borne diseases are a huge issue. Catnip could be a viable option for plant-derived repellents!
In the meantime, come next mosquito season make sure to plant plenty of catnip! Just grab a sprig of fresh catnip, crush the leaves to release the oil and scent, and place it in your hat or around your neckline.
And as an added bonus: plenty of fresh catnip for your kitty!