How Cats Respond to Catnip and Other Cat-Attracting Plants is Very Individual, Study Shows

New research shows that cats have an individual response to catnip and other cat-attracting plants like silvervine and that, unlike big cats, they don’t care for perfumes like Obsession for Men.

A grey and white cat chews on a silvervine stick
A cat chews on a silvervine stick. Photo: Abigail Crawford.

By Zazie Todd PhD

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If your cat likes catnip, you’ll have seen them sniff it, lick it, roll around on it or near it, and otherwise seem ecstatic in response to a toy containing fresh catnip. Then, after a while, the effect wears off.

Research has shown that cats can respond in a similar way to several other substances: valerian, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine (known as matatabi in Japan).  

Now, a new study by Dr. Sebastiaan Bol et al. published in BMC Biology takes this research a step further by investigating exactly how cats behave in response to catnip and similar plants. The results show that each cat has their own individual response—and that it’s the same for each of the substances they respond to in this way.


Cats’ responses to plants

As well as testing catnip, valerian, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine, the researchers added another plant that cats might respond to, Indian nettle (Acalypha indica). 

Six cats were tested in their own home environment at Cowboy Cat Ranch. The plant materials were presented in a sock, with green tea used as a control. Each cat was presented with the plant for more than 100 hours in total over a period of time.

Five of the six cats responded to all five of the cat-attracting plants, while the remaining cat, Z, responded to all except for valerian.

Interestingly, these cats had taken part in the previous research and at that time five of them had shown no response to catnip. Because of this, the scientists tested 2 different brands of catnip, in case the brand or freshness made a difference, but all cats responded to both brands. 

It’s already known that kittens don’t respond to catnip; in those cats who are sensitive to it, it’s thought to develop as a response at around 5-6 months of age. The results from this study suggest that some cats may develop the response at a later age. More research is needed to investigate this.

This is the first time it’s been shown scientifically that cats respond to Indian nettle, although it is known in the parts of the world where this plant grows naturally, hence it’s inclusion in the study. (Indeed, in the Malay language it is apparently called “excited cat tree”).  


The catnip response

The scientists looked in detail at how each cat responded to each of the plants. They found that cats have different responses, with one who mainly sat and rubbed their head on the sock, for example, while another laid on their side, rubbed their head, and also held, bit, and raked the sock containing catnip. The length of time each cat responded for was also different.

However a particular cat responded to catnip, they behaved the same with the other plants that they responded to. 

The study also showed that, as was already known for catnip, cats get used to the plants and stop responding after a while. So it’s a good idea to put the toys away for a bit and bring them out a day or two later. 

Another interesting finding is that once cats have responded to Tatarian honeysuckle or silver vine, this seems to block the response to catnip (just like after they have responded to catnip).


Cats’ responses to compounds and chemicals

So what are the compounds that cause these responses? As well as nepetalactone (found in catnip) and other similar lactones, some cats also responded to actinidine (a pyridine).

Dr. Bol told me,

"Actinidine is a fascinating molecule. It is one of the many single compounds we found to be able to elicit the "catnip response", but it seems to affect only few cats. Those cats who respond to actinidine really seem to love it though."

Another compound that cats responded to is dihydroactinidiolide which, interestingly, is found in urine and excretions from red foxes. It’s not known why cats would respond to a chemical made by another mammal.

The compound(s) in Tatarian honeysuckle that cats respond to have not, so far, been identified. 

Dr. Bol told me,

"Finding answers always results in more questions. There's something quite special about Tatarian honeysuckle, but we can't explain why."


Pet cats and fragrances

The cats were also tested with a set of fragrances that big cats have been found to respond to with head rubbing etc. Watch big cats respond to Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men in this video from National Geographic.  


But the pet cats did not respond to Obsession for Men, Drakkar Noir, L’Air du Temps, or Paco Rabanne for Homme—with the exception of one cat who responded to Drakkar Noir, but only after the perfume-sprayed cloth had been left in the room for some hours. 

We don’t know the ingredients of particular fragrances, but it’s possible that big cats respond to the perfumes because of a compound called civetone which is found in secretions from the anal glands of the civet cat. It's commonly used in perfumes because of its musky smell.

So each of the pet cats was tested with a set of substances that contained either civetone or artificial civet (the scientists did not get actual civet for ethical reasons). 

None of the pet cats responded to civetone or similar chemicals.

So whatever the one cat liked about Drakkar Noir, it wasn’t that. 

In fact, cats tend not to like strong scents; read more about what your cat's nose knows


How to try the plants with your own cat

It can be fun to try these plants with your cat to see if they respond or not. If your cat doesn’t like catnip, they may still like some of these other plants.

Silver vine (as a stick or powder) and valerian are increasingly available in cat toys. Tatarian honeysuckle is available from the Cat House in Calgary. I don’t know of any commercial source of Indian nettle for cats.

Space Kitty Express sells a complete cat-drug sampler toy that lets you try honeysuckle, a valerian root/lemongrass mix, silver vine, and of course catnip with your own cat.

The scientists who did this research point out that these substances are not like drugs for your cat, despite the common parlance of e.g. “meowjuana.” Indeed, they say such language may be detrimental if it puts some people off trying these plants with their cat. Cats don’t become addicted or suffer withdrawal symptoms from these plants, and you can stop the response any time simply by taking the plant away. 


Summary

The scientists write that, 

“Much about the ‘catnip response’ still seems riddled in mystery. We are clueless as to what the reason for, or biological response is and why it is only seen in felines.”

Although only six cats took part in this study, the results are very detailed. The paper shows that cats respond to a number of different molecules and it also shows the individuality of the feline response to cat-attracting plants. 

The full paper is open access and can be read via the link below. You can watch the first author, Dr. Sebastiaan Bol, talking about this research on cat-attracting plants in this Youtube video.  



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 two cats. 

Useful links:

Reference

Bol, S., Scaffidi, A., Bunnik, E.M. et al. Behavioral differences among domestic cats in the response to cat-attracting plants and their volatile compounds reveal a potential distinct mechanism of action for actinidine. BMC Biol 20, 192 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12915-022-01369-1 


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