What Does Catnip and Silver Vine do to cats? You tell me!

Every time someone asks “What does catnip do to cats?” or “What does silver vine do to cats?” another person creates a web page giving their opinion on the matter.

It’s like a version of It’s a Wonderful Life, but with more cats and less wisdom.

Now it’s our turn and we plan on doing something different. Instead of giving our opinion we are going to give you enough information to make your own opinion.

That’s right. By the end of this article you will have the tools to tell, not ask, what catnip and silver vine does to a cat’s brain. You might be wrong in your theory, but at least you will back your theory with published scientific studies and data that has been peer reviewed. Just like in the days before the internet.

In this article we cite our sources and list them at the bottom of the page. You will notice that three times we reference Wikipedia. Don’t judge too quickly! Twice we reference it for a simple definition. The third time we reference it to direct you to their sources at the bottom of their page. You can continue your journey down the path you think looks most appealing.

Hold onto your seats! This is going to be a fun ride!

What is the Difference Between Catnip and Silver Vine?

Let’s jump right into some Latin names! We told you this would be fun!

First, the difference between genus and species. In a Latin name the first word is genus, the second species. Here is a quick example of how that works.

A Humboldt penguin winking.

Ursus maritimus – polar bear 

Ursus arctos – grizzly bear

Both bears, but different species of bears.

Spheniscus humboldti – Humboldt penguin (aw! So cute!)

Different genus. Not a bear. See? Not so hard at all!

The catnip that we are familiar with is Nepeta cataria.

Silver vine’s Latin name is Actinidia polygama.

Why does this matter? Well, first we want to point out that silver vine and catnip are two totally different plants. They’re as different as penguins to polar bears.

Second, not everyone uses the term “catnip” to describe catnip. Other names include catwort, catmint, and “that darn plant in my garden that attracts all the neighborhood cats” to name a few.

Referencing the Latin name, even only at the beginning, helps us make sure we are talking about the same thing. Especially if we are talking about a plant from asian origin, as is silver vine. Latin names are universally used.

Silver vine is also known as cat powder and matatabi or マタタビ. Many readers might find Actinidia polygama easier to pronounce than マタタビ. (Unless you can read katakana. Then you know it says matatabi.)

Enough about names.

Catnip is a perennial plant in the mint family.  It grows very easily and can quickly take over areas.  It has broad leaves and pretty flowers. My plants’ flowers are white, but pink and white with purple spots also exist. 11

Silver vine is a species of kiwifruit that lives in the mountains of Japan and China. My first question was, “can I eat the fruit?”  Yes we can!  The kiwis it produces can be eaten by humans and is used in various dishes and drinks.  Sake anyone?  Different traditional medicines of China, Japan and Korea have various uses for the plant as well. 9

How Does Catnip Work? How Does Silver Vine work?

The Chemicals Involved in the Catnip Response

Now that we are finished with Latin class, let’s head on over to Chemistry!

Many people mention nepetalactone when talking about the catnip response.  But this is not the only chemical that causes cats to go bonkers. 7 The chemicals that have been shown to cause a reaction are:

  • Nepetalactone
  • Actinidine
  • Iridomyrmecin
  • Isodihydronepetalactone

Don’t worry about the pronunciation, that last one is a long one.

What Parts of the Brain Does Catnip Affect?

Right now we know that catnip involves the olfactory bulb, hypothalamus, and amygdala. 4, 7  However, we don’t know exactly what is going on in the cat’s experience when these areas are being affected.  There are studies linking the amygdala in humans to:

  • Emotional learning
  • Memory modulation
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Social Interaction
  • Aggression
  • Fear
  • Alcoholism and binge drinking
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Political orientation

That is quite a list. Add to it that we are talking about a cat, not a human, and things get even more complicated.  (We are listing Wikipedia as the reference here. 10  You can check out that page to find links to all the studies regarding the list we mentioned above.)

There is speculation, but no concrete answer. Instead of buying into the speculation of others, we recommend looking at the functions of the amygdala and making one of your own. This is way more fun.

One interesting note is that catnip does not affect cats if taken orally. 8 If you put catnip in a pill and feed it to a cat (we don’t recommend this) it will not cause the catnip response.  It is only when the cat sniffs the catnip.  This is how the olfactory bulb is involved.

Weird, right?

We notice our cat biting the catnip. But if we watch her closely she is often ripping it up and throwing it into the air. What she’s doing is releasing more of the chemicals into the air for her to breathe in.

This is something that surprised and disappointed us. We thought we were so slick in making catnip tea for our cat. Turns out drinking it won’t give her any extra buzz than just smelling it would.

Here is a video of cats under the influence of catnip. It is put out by the BBC, which I am a huge fan of. But notice they say that catnip’s “volatile oils imitate a sexual hormone”. We do not have direct proof of that. Also consider the fact that cats that have been spayed or neutered react to catnip as much as intact cats. They are not making a fair statement. Even the greats like BBC throw in some supposition now and then. But we still love you, BBC. No one is perfect.

What are the Best Parts of the Silver Vine Plant?

Another disappointing finding. In the study by Bol et al., 8 out of 9 cats responded to the fruit galls of the silver vine plant.  Only 1 out of 8 tested cats responded to the wood.  (The number changed because someone adopted cat number 9. Aww.)  And that one cat was more interested in the fruit galls than the wood. 3

The takeaway here: Cats are more attracted to the fruit galls of silver vine, not the wood.  There are a lot of silver vine products out there.  Some use the wood.  Some use the fruit galls.  Set your expectations appropriately.

Are All Cats Affected by Catnip?

Not all cats are affected. The catnip response is passed down genetically as autosomal dominant. 6

Different studies have gotten different numbers, but the percent of cats affected lay between 65% to 82%. The higher population studies range from 65-69%. 3

Let’s call it an even ⅔ of cats are affected by catnip. Or rather…nepetalactone.

Back to the chemistry lab!

Bol et al. did some really great work in breaking down these chemicals as they appear in catnip and silver vine. 3

I adapted the following table from their work for clarity. You can find the original table here.

Units are expressed as μg per gram dried plant material

CatnipSilver Vine
Nepetalactone (both arrangements)10423
Actinidine11290
Iridomyrmecin0167
Isodihydronepetalactone (all isomers)88801

Nepetalactone produces the catnip response in ⅔ of cats. That is mostly what catnip has.

But silver vine has different chemicals that produce the same response!  79% of cats in the study reacted to silver vine.  And those that reacted had strong reactions to the plant. 3

Here’s the take away from all of this:

Cats that do not react to catnip might react to silver vine.

There are other plants that produce the catnip response: tatarian honeysuckle and valerian root.  If your cat does not react to one, there is a chance that another of these will work.  Almost all cats respond to at least one of these plants. 3

There is one last thing that we would like to add before we move on. It is about how the brain perceives smells. The brain is not detecting a chemical, but rather the shape of the molecule.

My reference here is myself. I have a degree in Physics. A classmate of mine worked for a large perfume manufacturer. Their R&D department was working on building molecules that had the same shape as the molecules of the natural ingredients. This would mean they would not have to rely on non-renewable sources to produce the same smell. As long as the shape of the molecule is the same, the brain thinks it is made of the same elements.

The molecules in our list all have a similar shape. 3 I’m curious what other chemicals in nature have this same shape.

Is Catnip Dangerous for Cats? Is Silver Vine Dangerous for Cats?

Short answer: Nope.

No long term damage has been found in cats regarding catnip. Some cats with high sensitivity might throw up or have diarrhea with prolonged exposure, but this passes after the plant has been removed.

It was stated for some time that silver vine causes brain damage in cats.  This report was never actually verified through evidence or study.  It was later refuted through proper observation. 1

Silver vine is safe for cats.

One note in this same study is that habitation might occur. This means that repeated presentations of silver vine may decrease the response or cause it to disappear altogether. If you remove it after this, the response can come back.

In other words, kitty might build a resistance to it. But this was only suggested as a further area of study. We haven’t found papers directly studying habitation.

When we find something we’ll let you know.

Does Catnip Repel Mosquitoes?

Finally, we weren’t disappointed!

I bought my first catnip plant because I thought I was killing two birds with one stone. Enrichment for my cat and mosquito repellent for my porch. I live in the Texas gulf, so this matters.

Catnip does in fact repel mosquitoes!  A study done by Birkett et al. proved that catnip repels mosquitoes.  And not just mosquitoes, but some ticks and mites as well! 2

We can all now rest our worried brows.

There was more information in the study that we found interesting.

Originally people thought that nepetalactone was what repelled mosquitoes.  However, this study showed that a greater repellent effect occurs when it is mixed with caryophyllene.  Caryophyllene is also present in catnip. 5

Therefore, catnip is a greater mosquito repellent than a pure nepetalactone essential oil.  Other species in catnip’s genus, Nepeta, could also get results. 2  (Remember our Latin names? They help us again!) Also, different chemotypes (or “strains”) of catnip might be better than others.  This is because different chemotypes would have different ratios of the chemicals. 2  Good to know if you plan on starting your own catnip farm to make all natural insect repellent.

Hey, we can dream.

Farewell for now…

Thank you for joining us on this deep dive into the world of catnip. We hope we gave you enough information so that you are already creating your own theory. We also hope we gave you the tools to pursue that theory. You can even win a bet with your friends over whether mosquitoes are really repelled by catnip.

And don’t worry if you don’t remember how to spell Isodihydronepetalactone. Our computer doesn’t even recognize it in our spell check.

Sources

  1. Abramson CI, Lay A, Bowser TJ, Varnon CA. The use of silver vine (Actinidia polygama Maxim, family Actinidiaceae) as an enrichment aid for felines: Issues and prospects. Am J Anim Vet Sci. 2012;7(1):21–7. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/5de7/ecb3d4226c32342d693c8b207e9762e25b27.pdf?_ga=2.252148553.1770719125.1597557202-2095973444.1597557202
  2. Birkett MA, Hassanali A, Hoglund S, Pettersson J, Pickett JA. Repellent activity of catmint, Nepeta cataria, and iridoid nepetalactone isomers against Afro-tropical mosquitoes, ixodid ticks and red poultry mites. Phytochemistry. 2011;72(1):109–14. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://www.gwern.net/docs/www/aceci.org/7eff976d47d20fbccd86752ce7ca14ec7fb1255c.pdf
  3. Bol, S., Caspers, J., Buckingham, L. et al. Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and catnip (Nepeta cataria). BMC Vet Res 13, 70 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12917-017-0987-6 Retrieved August 17, 2020
  4. Katahira K, Iwai E. Effect of unilateral lesion of amygdala on unmanifested response to matatabi (Actinidia polygama) in cats. Tohoku J Exp Med. 1975;115(2):137–43. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/3a86/6437fca6699e3bb18f89fd6aa378263b6516.pdf?_ga=2.177035109.1770719125.1597557202-2095973444.1597557202
  5. McElvain SM, Bright RD, Johnson PR. The constituents of the volatile oil of catnip. I. Nepetalic acid, nepetalactone and related compounds. J Am Chem Soc. 1941;63(6):1558–63. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://www.gwern.net/docs/catnip/1942-mcelvain.pdf
  6. Todd NB. Inheritance of the catnip response in domestic cats. J Hered. 1962;53:54–6. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/2503/69aff68260c495fdc6c3cf4b4327dc96f8fa.pdf?_ga=2.124236874.1770719125.1597557202-2095973444.1597557202
  7. Tucker AO, Tucker SS. Catnip and the catnip response. Econ Bot. 1988;42(2):214–31. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://www.gwern.net/docs/catnip/1987-tucker.pdf
  8. Waller GR, Price GH, Mitchell ED. Feline attractant, cis,trans-nepetalactone: metabolism in the domestic cat. Science. 1969;164(3885):1281–2. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://www.gwern.net/docs/catnip/1969-waller.pdf
  9. Wikipedia. (n.d.) Actinidia polygama. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Actinidia_polygama
  10. Wikipedia. (n.d.) Amygdala. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amygdala
  11. Wikipedia. (n.d.) Catnip. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catnip
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