It's Not Just Catnip: Olfactory Enrichment for Cats

The olfactory enrichment cats love but you’ve (probably) never heard of: silvervine, Tatarian honeysuckle and valerian. Find out how many cats respond to each and the best type to get for your cat.

A euphoric cat rolling on a catnip plant - but some cats also respond to silver vine, honeysuckle, and valerian

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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It's such fun to see a cat rolling around on a catnip toy, but not all cats respond to it in this way. Did you know there are alternatives to catnip? That if your cat does not respond to catnip these other plant substances may still get a response? And that tigers and bobcats can respond to them too?

Silver vine, Tatarian honeysuckle, valerian and catnip for cats

A new study tests domestic cats with four different types of olfactory enrichment: catnip, silver vine, Tatarian honeysuckle and valerian. Tigers and bobcats were also tested. The results show almost all domestic cats love at least one of these.

These compounds are safe and not addictive, meaning owners have an easy way to provide enrichment to their cats (provided they can get hold of them).

First author, Dr. Sebastiaan Bol told me in an email,
“This research gave us insight in how many cats in the USA go crazy for catnip and plants that can have a similar effect on cats. Catnip was loved by many, but so was silver vine, a plant that is very popular in Japan, stinky valerian root and the wood of Tatarian honeysuckle. Sadly, about 1 out of every 3 cats doesn't like catnip. It's not a choice; it's genetically determined. The good news is that this study demonstrates that most of these cats WILL LOVE one or more of the other, SAFE, plant materials that were just mentioned.  
“These plant materials are a lot of fun for your cat at home, but they may also be helpful when socializing scared cats, for trap-neuter-return programs, training (e.g. redirecting scratching behavior) and possibly even for reducing stress during for example medical procedures (e.g. giving a pill), transportation and (medical) boarding. So much research that needs to be done!  
“The results from our small survey learned us that most veterinarians in the USA, including ones specialized in cats, do not know about the existence and effects on cats of these plants. This is why we love to reach out to people who care about the well-being of cats.  
“Finally, also for cats who DO like catnip, it can be super exciting to receive something new that they may like. If you enjoy drinking a glass of red wine, that doesn't mean you won't like a glass of champagne, does it? It probably depends on the moment. It's the same for cats. The best thing about being a cat in this particular case is that you don't have to worry about becoming an alcoholic or getting a hangover; all these plant materials come without any known negative side effects.” 

So whether or not your cat likes catnip, it’s worth giving these a try.

Zappa the cat loves her silver vine stick - great olfactory enrichment for cats
Zappa loving a silver vine wood stick. Photo: Sebastiaan Bol.

Sebastiaan Bol says his cats love silver vine, as you can see from the photo of Zappa enjoying her silver vine stick.

"Pretty much every day I see how much two of our six cats love the silver vine wood sticks. Multiple wood sticks are available to them all the time, but they really seem to pick their moment. It's adorable to watch and it makes me so happy to see them enjoy it so much."

The science on silver vine, valerian, Tatarian honeysuckle and catnip

The study tested 100 domestic cats with all four of these compounds. The cats were mostly moggies and they included cats at a sanctuary, waiting for adoption at a rehoming centre, at a cat-friendly veterinary practice and cats in their own homes. Five of the cats were adopted before completing the study, so the final sample was 95 cats.

The compounds were presented in two ways: in a sock, or on a piece of carpet. If the cat did not notice the arrival of the compound, it was moved one time to see if it would attract their attention, but cats were not chased with the items – it was up to them whether to interact with it or not. An empty sock was used as a control, but the person coding the responses did know which substance it was.

You have probably seen the classic kitty response to catnip, which includes licking, sniffing, drooling, rubbing the head or chin on the catnip, rolling, and raking (bunny-kicking the back legs). But not all cats respond to catnip, and this study found that about a third of cats did not respond to it.

Silver vine was a favourite, with 80% of the cats responding to silver vine. About half of the cats responded to valerian, and half to Tatarian honeysuckle. In fact, only six of the cats did not respond to any of the smells.

Cats' responses to catnip, silvervine, valerian and honeysuckle
Reproduced from Bol et al (2017) under Creative Commons licence CC4.0

Young and old cats were equally likely to respond. The scientists also found similar responses in cats considered friendly, shy, or somewhere in between. This suggests that this olfactory enrichment is suitable for all cats - after all, cats have great noses.

What causes the cat's response, and what type is best for your cat?

The study was conducted because there are anecdotal reports of cats responding to these substances (and to a fifth one, Indian nettle root, that was not tested). In Japan, silver vine is popular for cats and is known as matatabi. However, the scientists asked 38 vets and 6 vet techs who specialize in cats if they knew about this, and almost all said no. So you can be forgiven for not knowing about it too.

The chemical which causes the effect in catnip is called nepetalactone. Silver vine contains six compounds that are similar, and one is also found in valerian.

Silver vine is available in different forms, including wood sticks, powder, normal fruit, and fruit galls (where midge larvae have matured). The scientists found cats were more responsive to the fruit galls than the normal fruit. Unfortunately this makes it more difficult to commercially prepare silver vine on a large scale, since not very much is known about the silver vine gall midge and it also requires another plant as part of its life cycle. If you are looking to try it with your cat, the powder (which is the powder of the silver vine fruit galls) is probably the best place to start.

Tatarian honeysuckle is available as sticks or as blocks of wood. It will last forever, although you may need to wash it from time to time (after your cat has drooled on it a lot). If your cat stops responding to it, you can shave a bit of wood off to give it a fresh edge again.

Valerian root is available in some cat toys.

Alternatives to catnip: Silver vine, valerian and Tatarian honeysuckle. Find out how many cats respond and the best types to get for your cat. Here, a cat sleeps on a catnip plant.

Catnip, of course, is available as plants for your garden, as a dried herb (including with additional scents), and in many different cat toys.

Do tigers and bobcats respond to catnip and silver vine too?

The scientists tested catnip and silver vine on nine tigers at Big Cat Rescue, where keepers gave it to the animals. One tiger had a little interest in catnip, but the others were not interested. Four tigers were not interested in silver vine – and five of them took an active dislike to it. So it does not make good enrichment for tigers.

They also tested bobcats. Four bobcats responded to silver vine, and one to catnip, and their response was similar to that of the domestic cats. If you take a look at the paper (which is open access), you can see a photo of a bobcat rubbing her chin and cheeks on a paper bag that contains silver vine.

The video below, which was made several years ago, shows some of the cats at Big Cat Rescue responding to catnip.

Will your cat love these catnip alternatives?

A chemical analysis of all four substances shows the concentration of the chemical compounds which cats are probably responding to.

All four of these substances cause euphoria in at least some cats, with most cats responding to silver vine. So it is worth trying them out to see if they make your cat happy too.

The scientists conclude that “Olfactory enrichment using silver vine, Tatarian honeysuckle or valerian root may, similar to catnip, be an effective means to improve the quality of life for cats. Nearly all cats responded positively to at least one of these plants.”

The paper is open access, and you can follow the first author on twitter and Facebook.

To learn more about how to have a happy cat, check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy which is full of practical tips. Dr. Sarah Ellis says, "Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read!"

Have you tried any of these alternatives to catnip with your cat?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and one cat. 

More cat stories: Enrichment tips for cats (that many people miss) and what kind of scratching post do cats prefer?

Bol, S., Caspers, J., Buckingham, L., Anderson-Shelton, G. D., Ridgway, C., Buffington, C. T., ... & Bunnik, E. M. (2017). Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and catnip (Nepeta cataria). BMC Veterinary Research, 13, 1-16.
Photos: HHelene (top) and itakephotos4u ( Photo of Zappa, Sebastiaan Bol.

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