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Why are cats crazy about the grass that bears their name?

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Anyone who has ever seen a cat smell like catnip knows that this product drives them crazy: they rub it, roll in it, chew it and lick it aggressively. It is widely accepted that this plant and its Asian equivalent, theActinidia polygamousthey have intoxicating properties, but that may not be the only reason they trigger such strong enthusiasm among felines.

In fact, Japanese researchers found that when cats damage catnip, it releases a much greater amount of insect repellent, indicating that the cats’ behavior helps protect them from insects, harmful creatures.

This work was published in iScience.

The reaction of cats to these two plants is so specific that the lead author of the work, Masao Miyazaki, a researcher in the field of animal behavior at the University of Iwate, thought he had to shed some light on this phenomenon. “Even in the musical Catsthere are scenes where you see one cat poisoning another with catnip powder, ”he says.

The leaves of catnip and theActinidia polygamous they contain the chemical components called nepetalactol and nepetalactone, iridoids (components that give certain characteristics to plants) that protect plants from harmful insects. To see how cat behavior affected chemicals released by plants, Miyazaki worked with chemists from Nagoya University. “We found that the physical damage caused by cats favored the immediate release of iridoids, 10 times more than intact leaves,” said the researcher.

Not only is there an increased release of iridoids, but their composition changes in a way that seems to encourage cats. “Nepetalactol accounts for about 90 percent of all iridoids in an intact leaf, but this proportion drops to about 45 percent in damaged leaves, while the proportion of other iridoids increases dramatically,” Miyazaki said. “The altered iridoid composition at the damaged leaves favored an even more prolonged response from the cats. “

In previous work, Miyazaki and his research team had shown that these compounds were effective in repelling mosquitoes of the species Aedes albopictus. The team has now shown that when cats damage leaves by rubbing, rolling, licking and chewing them, the ‘repellent’ properties are even more effective. Diversification of iridoids in damaged leaves ofActinidia polygamous increases protection against mosquitoes, even when the concentration of these components is low.

To test whether felines react specifically to these components, they were given dishes containing pure nepetalactone and nepetalactol. “Cats show the same response to iridoid cocktails as to natural herbs, except when it comes to chewing the product,” says Miyazaki. “They lick the chemicals off the plate and scrub it, as well as roll over the plate in question. “

“When the iridoid cocktails were placed on the bottom of the dishes which were then covered with a plastic lid with holes, the cats still tried to lick and chew, even if they could not come into direct contact with the chemicals.” added the researcher.

“This means that both of these behaviors are instinctive and are triggered by an olfactory stimulation attributable to the iridoids. “

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