Last week, I received a press release from a public relations firm informing me that a bulldog’s Instagram account had acquired 1,000 followers.
It certainly wasn’t the first time a publicist had pitched a story about a pet’s social media presence. These days, it seems like everyone has a terrier that’s tweeting or a cat video that’s surely on the brink of going viral.
With so much competition, hiring a professional to get your furry friend in the news might seem like a worthwhile investment, but have we gone too far in our quest to uncover the next famous pet?
It’s no surprise that we love creating and sharing pet-related content on the Web.
Last year, we searched Google for “cats” and “dogs” more than any other year, and a study by mobile network Three found that we even post more cat photos than selfies.
Plus, it’s only natural for us to want to show the world how adorable our new kitten is or the goofy thing our dog did. About 91 percent of U.S. pet owners consider their pets to be family members and 58 percent think of their pets as children, so to pet owners, posting that puppy pic is no different.
But when we post videos of our cat’s antics or create an Instagram account for our dogs, are we doing so to share in our delight, or are we actually hoping our pets will be the Next Big Thing?
From pet cat to cash cow
If the Internet has taught us anything it’s that the average pet owner is only one cat photo away from fame and financial stability.
Tardar Sauce was just a cat with an underbite until her owner’s brother posted a photo on Reddit and the Internet christened the frowning feline Grumpy Cat.
Since then, Grumpy Cat’s empire has grown to include a movie, a bestselling book, a line of coffee, plush toys and assorted other merchandise, and it’s been reported that the feline has made nearly $100 million.
When a single unhappy-looking cat is raking in money like that, it’s hardly surprising that people would want to follow in Grumpy Cat’s pawsteps.
In fact, in a survey, 15 percent of pet owners said they post photos of their pet because they hope the animal will become an animal star.
“People who have over half a million followers are getting serious money,” Katie Sturino, the owner of an Instagram famous dog with nearly 300,000 followers, told Reuters. “The ones who have really broken out are getting a lot.”
Where’s all this money coming from? Mostly from brands looking to reach consumers through social media.
Often the companies that partner with Web-famous cats and dogs make or market pet-related products, and with Americans estimated to spend more than $60 billion on their animals this year, the pet industry is always on the lookout for social media influencers of the canine and feline variety.
“The dog demographic on these social platforms is huge,” Darren Lachtman told The New York Times. Lachtman is the co-founder of social media management agency Niche, which manages the careers of dogs like Biggie Smalls.
But the brands willing to shell out cash for a little furry fame aren’t always touting dog toys and cat food.
Last April, Lachtman’s clients worked with American Eagle as part of an American Beagle April Fool’s Day campaign. “We flew a bunch of dogs to their headquarters in Pittsburgh. I think we had five dogs that each had 400,000 followers. It’s a crazy audience. It works really well."
How to make your pet famous
Google “how to make my pet famous,” and you’ll find countless articles with such helpful tips as “put your dog in a situation (not necessarily life or death) and tell a story” and “rescue dogs really tug at the heartstrings.” However, most of the advice focuses on finding a gimmick.
Determining that unique angle — or what makes your pet meme-worthy — is necessary when you’re competing against the millions of pet photos and videos shared on the Internet every day.
After all, Tardar Sauce was simply an unhappy-looking cat until we assigned a human emotion to her and splashed humorous text across her photo, giving her the sourpuss personality we know today.
Take a look at the most famous cats and dogs and you’ll see that they all have a unique appearance, an engaging voice, an interesting backstory or even a disability. In other words, they have a gimmick.
“Your [pet] either has to have a deformity or a disability or a well-connected parent,” Wendy Diamond, founder of Animal Fair magazine told Reuters.
Cuteness is, of course, optional. Just look at the wildly successful Ugly Dog Contest.
“Seemingly negative characteristics can be a ticket to wildly disproportionate success,” write the authors of the humorous book “How to Make Your Cat an Internet Celebrity: A Guide to Financial Freedom.” “It may be painful to acknowledge that your cat is hideous, clumsy or unpleasant. But none of that means he can’t make bank.”
Crassness aside, it’s this quest for fame that has inspired pet owners to do everything from training their animals to perform bizarre, attention-grabbing tricks to dressing them up in costumes.
“We are hoping for Albert to become America's next big cat superstar,” Christine Look told the Daily Mail in March.
Look photographs her pet, Albert Baby Cat, in costumes from popular movies and TV shows, and the feline has now amassed more than 100,000 Instagram followers.
But Look acknowledges the climb to fame wasn’t easy.
“In the beginning, he really detested it and it was a struggle to get him to stay put in the clothes,” she said.
Adopting the already famous
The media has saved countless pets’ lives and helped cats and dogs that were once deemed unadoptable to find forever homes. Usually, all it takes is a viral Facebook post or a brief appearance on the local news.
"Getting an animal on television is a guaranteed adoption," Ed Boks, the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services, told the Los Angeles Times. "I think it has to do, perhaps, with an affinity with fame. A lot of folks want to touch that celebrity status through adopting the animal that everyone now wants."
But while an animal’s sudden fame can benefit that one animal, it can often be a headache for shelter workers.
Beth Lavigne, director of Los Angeles-based rescue group Go Dog Safe Paws, says that when Ari — a dog the media dubbed a Steve Buscemi lookalike — rocketed to Internet fame this year, it was a mixed blessing.
She was “inundated” with calls and emails from people across the globe who wanted to adopt Ari; however, it’s the shelter’s policy to complete home checks before letting one of its animals be adopted. Lavigne urged interested adopters to consider an animal in their own area, but says that people often set their sites on taking home one particular animal.
“Due to the financial success that seems to come with owning a celebrity pet, people seem to clamor over each other at the chance to be the human behind the next fresh furry face,” writes a blogger for 3MillionDogs.com. “But what about the millions of animals already at shelters who haven't had their 15 minutes of fame?”
Perhaps that’s why some rescue organizations keep their famous pets, letting them serve as shelter mascots to increase adoptions, like Moultrie-Colquitt County Humane Society did with Rami, or capitalizing on the animal’s massive Facebook following like Cat’s Cradle Shelter did with Corky.
So if you have your heart set on owning a celebrity pet, it’s best to forego the inquiry about the funny-looking feline on the opposite coast and visit your local shelter to find the future star.
“While it's a fantastic idea to seek out and adopt a pet whose story on the Internet inspired you,” writes 3MillionDogs, “please keep in mind that there are countless cats, dogs, and other pets right in your area who have stories as well — you just haven't heard them yet.”