Is catnip the next bug repellent?

A grey cat enjoying fresh catnip, a possible bug repellent By Anna Hoychuk/Shutterstock

Given that her cat doesn’t have opposable thumbs, my daughter took the liberty of opening his Christmas present for him. Santa Paws had brought him catnip—the good stuff, the expensive stuff, from a local supplier. And so her tabby spent Christmas in a state of doped-up bliss.

There were no mosquitoes in our house on that snowy day but if there had been we might have noticed something. We might have noticed that though the mosquitoes drove us crazy, they largely left the cat alone. The cat might have been buzzed but he likely wouldn’t have been bitten.

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As a mosquito repellent, catnip—and a cousin called silver vine, common in many parts of Asia—is something of a gardener’s folk remedy. But there have been studies that indicate there’s more to it than anecdote.

Now, a recent study out of Iwake University in Japan further tested the hypothesis that there’s a better reason for cats taking a bit of nip (or vine) than simply chasing a high. And what the research found indicates that not only are cats protected from mosquitoes by dousing themselves in catnip, it’s possible humans could benefit from it too.

“Many felids rely on stealth to stalk and ambush their prey, requiring them to remain unmoving,” says Masao Miyazaki, a biochemist and veterinary scientist who lead the research project. “Thus, a repellent that reduces their susceptibility to both the irritation of biting mosquitoes and the diseases that those vectors carry is likely to provide a strong protective advantage.”

Both catnip and silver vine contain iridoids, which arouse feline’s pleasure circuits, causing them to rub their heads, cheeks, and bodies on the plants. Researchers either rubbed iridoids onto the heads of housecats or allowed them to rub themselves. They then put the cats in the proximity of hungry mosquitoes. The pesky bugs largely ignored the felines doused in iridoids in favour of those without the plant protection.

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Does this protection extend toward humans similarly soaked in catnip? That’s not yet clear but Miyazaki is optimistic after sacrificing both arms to research, one slathered in iridoids and the other not. The mosquitoes, he was pleased to note, chose the naked limb.

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