Behavioral differences among domestic cats in the response to cat-attracting plants and their volatile compounds reveal a potential distinct mechanism of action for actinidine

Sebastiaan Bol, Adrian Scaffidi, Evelien M. Bunnik, Gavin R. Flematti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Background: It has been known for centuries that cats respond euphorically to Nepeta cataria (catnip). Recently, we have shown that Lonicera tatarica (Tatarian honeysuckle), Actinidia polygama (silver vine), and Valeriana officinalis (valerian) can also elicit this “catnip response”. The aim of this study was to learn if the behavior seen in response to these plants is similar to the response to catnip. Furthermore, we studied if these responses are fixed or if there are differences between cats. While nepetalactone was identified decades ago as the molecule responsible for the “catnip response”, we know that this volatile is found almost exclusively in catnip. Therefore, we also aimed to identify other compounds in these alternative plants that can elicit the blissful behavior in cats. Bioassays with 6 cats were performed in a low-stress environment, where 5 plants and 13 single compounds were each tested for at least 100 and 17 h, respectively. All responses were video recorded and BORIS software was used to analyze the cats’ behavior. Results: Both response duration and behavior differed significantly between the cats. While individual cats had preferences for particular plants, the behavior of individual cats was consistent among all plants. About half a dozen lactones similar in structure to nepetalactone were able to elicit the “catnip response”, as were the structurally more distinct molecules actinidine and dihydroactinidiolide. Most cats did not respond to actinidine, whereas those who did, responded longer to this volatile than any of the other secondary plant metabolites, and different behavior was observed. Interestingly, dihydroactinidiolide was also found in excretions and secretions of the red fox, making this the first report of a compound produced by a mammal that can elicit the “catnip response”. A range of different cat-attracting compounds was detected by chemical analysis of plant materials but differences in cat behavior could not be directly related to differences in chemical composition of the plants. Together with results of, among others, habituation / dishabituation experiments, this indicates that additional cat-attracting compounds may be present in the plant materials that remain to be discovered. Conclusions: Collectively, these findings suggest that both the personality of the cat and genetic variation in the genes encoding olfactory receptors may play a role in how cats respond to cat-attracting plants. Furthermore, the data suggest a potential distinct mechanism of action for actinidine.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number192
JournalBMC Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • Catnip
  • Dihydroactinidiolide
  • Enrichment
  • Feline
  • Nepetalactone
  • Olfaction
  • Scent
  • Silver vine
  • Tatarian honeysuckle
  • Valerian

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Structural Biology
  • Physiology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • Biotechnology
  • Plant Science
  • Cell Biology
  • Developmental Biology


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