By Narda Robinson, DO, DVM
Posted: Feb. 1, 2012, 5:15 p.m. EST
Catnip is complex. Sure, the antics that unfold after cats rub and roll on the leaves make its allure seem mainly hedonistic. However, a closer look at the chemistry of catnip shows that those who partake may be getting more than a buzz.
As often happens in nature, the whys behind animals’ attraction to certain plants bespeak a secondary gain or medicinal value. Scientists call the process by which animals select and employ plants to treat and prevent disease “zoopharmacognosy.”1 Although biologists and conservationists have mostly focused on this phenomenon as it occurs in the wild, one can witness Mother Nature’s wisdom right at home in the Felis catus domesticus, or housecat.
Catnip, Nepeta cataria, belongs to the mint family. Decades ago, chemists isolated its primary constituent, nepetalactone.2 Catnip’s folk medicine acclaim as an antispasmodic, antitussive, sedative, stimulant and carminative (anti-gas) have brought nepetalactones growing focus from scientists around the world, hunting for phytopharmaceutical treasures from this common backyard inhabitant.3
A Little History
Well before it was hip to smoke catnip in the 1960s, with enthusiasts claiming its high resembled that of LSD,4,5 early settlers in U.S. colonies found catnip sedating and took it as tea.6 Its calming influences probably arise from its valeric acid content. Curiously, some cats find valerian root, a rich source of valeric acid, as compelling to roll on as catnip.7
Catnip is garnering greater attention nowadays due to its ability to repel ectoparasites and other insect pests. The utilization of botanical insecticides and repellents harkens back to ancient civilizations. Before the proliferation of synthetic chemical insecticides in North America and Europe, people turned to plants to ward off flies, mosquitoes and other bothersome bugs.
The ecologic and faunal safety of catnip oil makes it a relatively nontoxic insect repellent, when tested in rats and rabbits.8 A recent study, published last year in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, verified the value of catnip in this regard, finding oil of catnip highly effective in repelling stable flies in cattle feedlots with greater than 99 percent effectiveness.9
Cats and Mother Nature
Reports of animals applying phytomedicinals from the field to the fur are found frequently in the zoopharmacognosy literature. For example, white-nosed coatis in Panama rub an extruded resin from Trattinnickia trunks on their bodies; the resin contains sesquiterpene lactones that repel various ectoparasites, including lice, fleas and ticks, along with mosquitoes and other biting insects.10
Could cats, like coatis, be subconsciously counting on plants for purposes other than fun? If so, how did Mother Nature connive cats both big and small, wild and domestic, to crush the leaves and thereby release the oils onto their fur? Perhaps the natural world has found, as has Wall Street, that sex sells.11
Psychologists in the 1960s determined that catnip’s scent serves as a “sex odour,” or pheromone. Furthermore, the sniff, press and roll response of cats to the catnip plant closely resembles feline estrous behavior, denoted by rolling, head shaking and face rubbing.12
Cats on catnip have a heightened focus on cat-sized objects, much as queens in heat pay particular attention to nearby males: “[T]hey roll near them, rub against them and paw bat them.”13 The charming displays affected both genders regardless of neuter or spay status.
Why do genetically susceptible male cats (as well as spayed females) exhibit the estrus-like rolling pattern? Similar to mammary glands in males, the sexes may share similarities in equipment structurally but maturation leads their function and development in different directions.
As the researchers postulated, “It is currently  accepted that the presence of hormones during prenatal development selectively organizes the hypothalamus for either predominantly male or female behaviour [sic]. It may be possible that this selective organization does not refer to the behaviour [sic]-mediating mechanisms themselves but to the threshold level of the hormone-sensitive cells which initiate their excitation.”
Not Just Cats
The aphrodisiac qualities of catnip have not escaped other species. A 2011 paper in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology examined the arousal response more closely with rats as the animal model. Investigators spiked their chow with 10 percent catnip; control rats received regular chow.14 After feeding for four hours, rats on catnip exhibited significantly more frequent occurrences of apomorphine-induced penile erections. Their sexual behavior and general activity levels also improved.
Apomorphine was injected into both groups for its dopamine [DA] receptor agonist effects. At low doses, its impact on the paraventricular nucleus [PVN] of the hypothalamus induces penile erection, as do other excitatory neurotransmitters such as N-methyl-D-aspartic acid [NMDA], oxytocin, and DA or DA agonists.
The addition of catnip to the diet may have potentiated the likelihood of penile erection induced by the low dose DA agonist because of catnip’s intrinsic dopaminergic activity.
To round out catnip’s chemistry, scientists in Poland have shown that it possesses antimicrobial and antioxidant effects as well.15
How fortunate are cats to have an aphrodisiac, relaxant, antioxidant, insect repellent and digestive aid wrapped in a cat-palatable plant package that they can take on their terms, unlike pills or capsules.
Dr. Robinson, DVM, DO, Dipl. ABMA, FAAMA, oversees complementary veterinary education at Colorado State University.
1. Robles M, Aregullin M, West J, et al. Recent studies on the zoopharmacognosy, pharmacology and neurotoxicology of sesquiterpene lactones. Pl anta Medica. 1995;61(3):199-203.
2. Palen GF and Goddard GV. Catnip and oestrous behavior in the cat. Anim Behav. 1966;14:372-377.
3. Adiguzel A, Ozer H, Sokmen M, et al. Antimicrobial and antioxidant activity of the essential oil and methanol extract of Nepeta cataria. Polish Journal of Microbiology. 2009;58(1):69-76.
4. Bernardi MM, Kirsten TB, Lago JHG, et al. Nepeta cataria L. var. citriodora (Becker) increases penile erection in rats. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 2011;137:1318-1322.
5. Jackson B and Reed A. Catnip and the alteration of consciousness. Journal of the American Medical Association. 1968;207:1349-1350.
6. Osterhoudt KC, Lee SK, Callahan JM, et al. Catnip and the alteration of human consciousness. Veterinary and Human Toxicology. 1997;39(6):373-375.
7. Robinson NG. Valerian root: Herbal valium? Written for Veterinary Practice News in 2003. Accessed at http://csuvets.colostate.edu/pain/Articlespdf/Valerian%20Root.pdf on 12-02-11.
8. Zhu J, Zeng X, Berkebile D, et al. Efficacy and safety of a novel filth fly repellent. Med Vet Entomol. 2009;23:209-216.
9. Zhu JJ, Dunlap CA, Behle RW, et al. Repellency of a wax-based catnip-oil formulation against stable flies. J Agric Food Chem. 2010;58:12320-12326.
10. Gompper ME and Hoylman AM. Grooming with Trattinnickia resin: possible pharmaceutical plant use by coatis in Panama. Journal of Tropical Ecology. 1993;9:533-540.
11. Stephey MJ. Sex sells. Here’s why we buy. Time. May 21, 2009. Accessed at http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1900032,00.html on 12-02-11.
12. Palen GF and Goddard GV. Catnip and oestrous behavior in the cat. Anim Behav. 1966;14:372-377.
13. Palen GF and Goddard GV. Catnip and oestrous behavior in the cat. Anim Behav. 1966;14:372-377.
14. Bernardi MM, Kirsten TB, Lago JHG, et al. Nepeta cataria L. var. citriodora (Becker) increases penile erection in rats. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 2011;137:1318-1322.
15. Adiguzel A, Ozer H, Sokmen M, et al. Antimicrobial and antioxidant activity of the essential oil and methanol extract of Nepeta cataria. Polish Journal of Microbiology. 2009;58(1):69-76.
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