Your cat is getting more than a high from a catnip. For a lesson in euphoria, look no further than a house cat twined around a twig of silver vine.

When offered a snipping of the plant, which contains chemicals similar to the ones found  in catnip, most domesticated felines will purr, drool and smoosh their faces into its intoxicating leaves and stems, then zonk out in a state of catatonic bliss.

But the ecstatic rush might be the only reason felines flock to these plants, new research suggests.  Compounds contained in plants like silver vine and catnip might also help cats ward off mosquitoes.

Other papers have pointed to the insect-deterring effects of catnip and similar plants.

But a new study, published in the journal Science Advances, is the first to draw a direct link between the plants and their protective effects on cats.

Botanically speaking, catnip and silver vines are distant cousins. Both contain iridoids, a suite of chemicals that seem to tickle pleasure circuits in cats.

The origins of the so-catnip response have bedeviled animal behaviorists for years.

The new findings suggest that cats, which can contract heartworm infections from mosquito bites, might glean some medicinal benefit to go along with their bliss, said Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior expert at the University of California, Davis, who wasn't involved in the study.

It wouldn't be the first example of an animal's smearing itself with plant compounds to safeguard its health.

Researchers are still aren't sure why the chemicals send cats, but not other animals like dogs or mice, into such a tizzy.

To pinpoint the evolutionary roots of the plant-feline connection, researchers corralled a menagerie of cats and monitored their responses to an iridoid extracted from silver vine, which thrives in many parts of Asia.

The chemical seemed to hold similar sway over big cats at zoos, including a leopard, two jaguars and two lynxes. [Katherine J Wu]


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