Scientists Discover Why Cats Go Crazy for Catnip

The plant activates cats' opioid systems, much like heroin and morphine do in humans. But it doesn't end there.
Derya Ozdemir

Cats are generally calm and collected animals that don't lose their cool often, which makes their behavior while on catnip even more extraordinary. While they can be goofy, mischievous, and playful whenever they please, nothing gets them going like catnip which is the reason why so much research has been done about it.

No matter how intriguing, exactly how catnip produces this feline high was a mystery to scientists for so long. A study has come forward though, and it suggests that the key intoxicating chemicals in the catnip activates cats' opioid systems -- which is what heroin and morphine do in people, per a press release.

The study was published in Science Advances.

What catnip is anyway

Catnip, Nepeta cataria, is a member of the minty family. The researchers showed that its active ingredient, nepetalactone, causes the reactions we see in cats. Domestic cats are not the only ones who are affected by it though, since you can see lions and tigers enjoying the plant as well.

In order to conduct the experiment, the researchers put 10 leaves’ worth of nepetalactol into paper pouches and gave them to domestic cats together with pouches containing only a saline substance. Most of the cats showed interest only in the pouches with nepetalactol.

The researchers then measured beta-endorphins in the bloodstreams of five cats 5 minutes before and after exposure to the substance. This hormone relieves pain and induces pleasure by activating the body’s opioid system, and results showed that it became much more elevated after exposure to nepetalactol. Those who had their opioid systems blocked did not rub on the pouches with nepetalactol.

An insect repellant

The study had another surprising outcome. Scientists stated that this attraction towards the substance was not only for euphoric experience and is rather a functional behavior. Since nepetalactone has insect-repelling properties, the researchers hypothesized that cats used it as an insect repellant.

In order to test their theory, they put the heads of sedated cats which were nepetalactol-treated into chambers full of mosquitoes. When they counted how many mosquitoes they attracted, they found out that nepetalactol-treated ones had half the number of mosquitoes landed on them.

The researchers have patented a new nepetalactone-based insect repellent. This study serves as an important example of how insects can shape animal behavior.


If you want to see some cute cats on crack in a video that feels like a vintage "don't do drugs" documentary, you can watch the footage below: