A friend who once worked nights at a bar in the resort was asked by a customer where to find “weed”. Actually my buddy’s day job was farming, and his truck had a lot of hay straw, so as a prank he bagged some and gave it to the grateful guy. The next night the guy wanted more, saying it was great, much to my friend’s surprise. “Who knows what else might grow in alfalfa,” he joked with a shrug.

My first thought was that it could be catnip (Nepeta cataria), a member of the mint family that has opioid-like effects on cats and mild sedative effects on humans. It is found in many herbal tea blends designed to combat stress or insomnia. Native to Europe, Africa and Asia, catnip has long since become naturalized in the Americas and now grows pretty much everywhere except the Arctic and high altitudes. In fact, if you live in the countryside, you probably have some crops on your land.

Most of us have seen cats ingesting catnip, or at least seen videos of the antics cats get after sniffing nepetalactone, the volatile compound in catnip that allows felines to hang around. feel good. Of course, cats’ brains don’t respond to drugs like ours. The most popular drugs work directly enough on our brains to improve “feel-good” chemicals like dopamine and endorphins. But nepetalactone acts in a cat’s brain through a series of Rube Goldberg-like pathways that extend from the olfactory bulb to the amygdala and then to the hippocampus, triggering an endocrine reaction in the pituitary gland to produce a sex pheromone. In short, catnip feels just as good as sex. To cats anyway.

About 75% of adult cats – domestic and wild – are affected by catnip. They usually roll, salivate and vocalize for about ten minutes in response to a good catnip. From a survival standpoint, it seems like a bad idea for most cats to waste themselves on purpose, even for a short time, as it potentially leaves them vulnerable for a period of time, let alone put a damper on the hunt.

The answer has been before us for some time, although it was only recently that all the pieces came together in a controlled study. In August 2001, the results of a catnip study were presented at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society. Actually, it was a nepetalactone study, minus the cats, but cool nonetheless. Researchers at Iowa State University have found that nepetalactone is ten times better than DEET at repelling mosquitoes! Not only is it impressive, but I wonder why I didn’t switch from DEET to catnip.

This could be because catnip has relatively low levels of nepetalactone compared to the concentrations used in the study. People were quick to connect the dots and speculate that cats might be rolling in catnip to repel bugs. Given that we’ve known for twenty years that the plant could help keep Fluffy’s skeeters away, it seems odd that it has taken so long to be sure.

We already know that for a cat, nepetalactone feels as good as a roll in hay. Now, a five-year study in Japan, published in January 2021, shows that a roll of catnip repels at least half of mosquitoes compared to cats without catnip. Masao Miyazaki, a biologist at Iwate University, studied domestic cats as well as four species of big cats in zoos, to learn more about their degree of attraction to catnip and to measure their blood levels. of “feel-good” chemicals before and after snorting. the plant. The research team placed cats sedated, some allowed to let off steam in catnip beforehand and others not, in rooms full of mosquitoes, and counted the number of bites each group had. received. They’ve proven that cats that roll in catnip not only feel happier, but get far fewer bites than sober cats. Miyazaki’s team also patented a new insect repellant based on nepetalactone, which may have been the starting point.

If you have a cat, consider planting catnip in the garden next year – the seeds are commercially available and inexpensive. It can provide you with tea (and fun) and happy, mosquito-free feelings for your cat.

Paul Hetzler is an arborist and former Cornell Cooperative Extension educator.

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