Tuna has over a million followers, a book deal, and a line of merchandise. Grumpy Cat has made her owner nearly $100 million. What makes these monetizable pets so special?
I know you should never meet your idols. But, for the sake of journalism, sometimes you must.
I, like nearly 2 million others, have been following Tuna—a Chihuahua-Dachshund cross-breed—on Instagram for several years. And now I'm following him in real life, down a road and into St. James's Park in London, where he's being taken for his morning walk.
Tuna and his owner, Courtney Dasher, both of whom are originally from California, have traveled to London to start the UK leg of their book tour. Tuna shot to social media stardom after Dasher set up his Instagram page in 2011, and the all-access guide to one of the most famous dogs on the planet—Tuna Melts My Heart: The Underdog with the Overbite—is just the latest Tuna memento available to fans, alongside mugs bearing his face, a calendar, and white bronze rings moulded into the shape of his head.
Tuna is not conventionally good-looking. He has a huge overbite with tiny little teeth sticking out. He has oversized ears and a long wrinkly neck, and has hair so fine that he's essentially naked. Tuna is not a perfect looking pet, and that's why he's so popular.
"One woman showed up to a book signing who had agoraphobia—she hadn't left her house in years. This woman got over her fear, just to meet Tuna!" says Dasher, directing Tuna into different poses for VICE photographer Chris. She knows exactly what angles Tuna looks best from, like moving him around and giving him prompts, like a pageant mom with dog treats instead of lip gloss.
However implausible it sounds that a wrinkly little dog could cause such astonishing healing miracles, Tuna really does appear to have a remarkably positive effect on people's lives. Dasher tells me numerous other stories of fans thanking Tuna for helping them deal with everything from break-ups to chemotherapy.
"After listening to these people, I realized that this is way more than just a dog with an Instagram account," she says, picking Tuna up and putting him in her doggie satchel. "This unconventional-looking dog is being used to bring joy and make people happy."
When Dasher started Tuna's Instagram page back in 2011, the internet was already very into animals. Websites like icanhas.cheezburger.com and cuteoverload.com had existed since as early as 2007, establishing the idea that your pet—or, more specifically, your cat—had the potential to go viral for pulling a weird face or running full pelt into a wall. But these pages were essentially just catalogues of hundreds of different animals being "lol"—it was impossible to establish any kind of connection with one particular pet. And a cursory glance at a cat meme is never going to cure your agoraphobia.
It turns out that what people wanted, and what Instagram facilitated, was to be able to maintain some kind of relationship with these animals—to know the back-story and receive regular updates. Cuteoverload shut up shop in January of 2016, and icanhas.cheezburger is looking very tired, while another one of these Instagram-famous animals pops up seemingly every month.
A recent survey of 1,012 British pet owners, carried out by One4all, found that half of UK pets now have a social media account. Not all of them attract millions of dedicated fans and spawn lucrative merchandise lines, but some do. Accounts like Grumpy Cat, Marnie the Dog, and Lil Bub all have over a million followers, as well as the book deals and products that come with that kind of captive audience.
But for Dasher and many of her contemporaries, building an online pet empire was never part of the plan.
Dasher adopted Tuna in 2010 after she found him at a farmers market; she says he resembled "Oliver Twist, shivering in an oversized jumper." A year later, she created an Instagram account, and then in 2012, the account went viral. The Daily Mail was the first major news outlet to pick up on Tuna's popularity. "Meet Tuna, the Chihuahua-Dachshund mix who has melted the hearts of 375,000 Instagram followers," read the headline in June of 2013. Gradually, 375,000 followers snowballed into over a million, and 1 million-plus followers snowballed into a full-time job.
"There was a point where I had an interior design boutique business, as well as a 9–5 job working in a design center, along with a social life, and a dog and his Instagram," says Courtney. "I had to prioritize what was important. I felt like this was my opportunity to make a positive difference in the world, so I took a leap of faith."
The reason Dasher could take that leap of faith is because having an Insta-famous pet—and selling merchandise related to that Insta-famous pet—pays.
"I was talking to a CEO of a successful company, and this person was saying, 'Without knowing it, you've started a start-up company quicker than most, because you have a real understanding of what your brand is," says Dasher, as Tuna snoozes next to us. "When I started my account, I never had an intention to garner a large following, but I think, unbeknownst to me, I developed a brand on day one. I made a decision that I was not going to reveal who I was; I was just going to make it about Tuna."
Dasher is adamant about keeping her account as authentic as possible, free from unrelated brand endorsements—which can be difficult when the big money in social media comes through sponsored posts. She claims she refuses 95 percent of deals from major companies. "It's hard sometimes, because it's enticing when you are offered big posting deals," she admits. "But if I'm not at peace with the idea or think it's not a good fit with Tuna and the brand of Tuna, then I politely decline."
A huge part of the Tuna "brand" is raising awareness and financial support for animal rescue; a percentage of the profits from products sold in Tuna's online store go to rescue centers across the US. The proceeds from the new book, however, go directly to Dasher, which she has been criticized for; when you're projecting such a strong message of charity, buyers expect you to put your money where your mouth is.
"At the same time," says Dasher, "this has become full time, and if I didn't have a source of income, I wouldn't be able to devote as much attention to him and to the audience."
There are a number of other pet accounts that have used their unexpected success to promote animal welfare causes. A pint-sized disabled cat named Lil Bub—and her owner, Mike Bridavsky—are at the helm of another pet positivity empire. I spoke to Bridavsky over the phone after he'd just returned from Lil BUB's Lil SHOP—not an online shop, a real-life brick and mortar store in Indiana, the state where Bub was originally rescued from a tool shed.
In 2014, Bridavsky announced the creation of Lil Bub's Big Fund, the first national fund for special needs pets in America. The fund works in line with the ASPCA to administrate the money Bub and her fans generate, and then distributes this money to small shelters around the US.
"Because so many people care about Bub, it's really easy for me to attach a positive message—and people will listen," said Bridavsky. "As the money we were making for the fund increased, I realized I wasn't qualified to decide which shelters should get what proportion of the money."
So far, Mike and Bub have donated nearly $200,000 to special needs pet projects.
It may be easy to attach a positive message to a pet account, but it's just as easy not to attach any message at all. And why should you have to? Bodhi—or @mensweardog—is a six-year-old Shiba Inu far more concerned with aesthetics than altruism. He's become an online sensation after getting paid work as a menswear model for clothing lines such as ASOS and Coach.
But if one account were to represent the pure monetization of a moggy, it would be Grumpy Cat, the mix-breed with feline dwarfism. In 2014, Forbes reported that Grumpy Cat—real name: Tardar Sauce—had made her owner around $97 million from an array of products, including best-selling books and a film deal.
In an interview with the Daily Mail, Ben Lashes—who manages Grumpy Cat, as well as Nyan Cat and Keyboard Cat—explained what he looks for in his feline clients. "I've never been someone who's called up every mildly famous cat on the internet," he said. "I'm very picky. To be worth it, they have to already be an icon. When I first saw Grumpy Cat, she was instantly, to me, something you could never forget [...] A certain amount of it is magic—the thing that makes the Beatles more than four guys playing in a basement. "
As well as countless other sponsorship agreements, Grumpy signed a lucrative deal with American cat food producer Friskies. When I spoke to him about it, Mike Bridavsky was clear that Lil Bub would never be a part of such an agreement. "I don't want to endorse any cat products that I wouldn't feed to my own cats," he said. "I'm not going to sign my life away by suddenly having to post something about buying Friskies food every day for a year."
The same way that musical artists, clothing brands, and multinational banks now all strive for "authenticity"—the most-savored cultural currency going—it seems a subset of people who take photos of their pets and put them on social media also want their followers to know they have no plans to sell out. That all their fans can expect are undiluted, un-sponsored images of their favorite online animal personalities.
As the authenticity-profitability debate rages on, in London, Tuna's book signing is underway, with the line outside Shoreditch's Ace Hotel curling out the door and around the corner.
The fans I speak to—a real mixture of people, from accountants to retired nurses—are all enthusiastic but relatively well-behaved. There's no screaming or underwear hurling. However, one man catches my attention because he is pacing up and down, trying desperately to catch a glimpse of Tuna. I soon realize the man I'm looking at is Lee Ryan, former member of the boy band Blue.
"Me and my friends are all in this WhatsApp group where we take photos of ourselves impersonating Tuna and send them to each other," he says, as I glaze over, trying to process how bizarre my day has become. "I'd rather Tuna was in Blue than Duncan James. You can quote me on that."
And I will. Because saying you'd rather a dog was in your band than a professional singer is a pretty good sign of the power of Tuna and how the internet can now transform a pet into an international Instagram icon.
Follow Amelia on Twitter.