Inside the lucrative world of pet influencers

"It's changed our lives completely. We never saw this coming.”

Photos of Turbo Roo, Tatum Talks, and Tika the Iggy
Photos courtesy of Charles Lever, Thomas Shapiro, Ashley Looper; art treatment by Dewey Saunders
I'm not a regular snake mom, I'm a cool snake mom
ByLuke Winkie
Originally Published: 

Like so many other pet owners, Charles Lever gave his dog a voice. He adopted an American pit bull terrier named Tatum in 2016 and started narrating Tatum’s inner monologue as the pair went on adventures together. What was he thinking as he explored the backyard, or dug his holes, or chased his tail? In Lever's imagination, Tatum's voice is nasally and high in the throat — it brings to mind Jamie Kennedy, or one of Snow White's seven dwarves. He recorded videos of Tatum, added in his annotation, and Snapchatted the results to the rest of his family. These were the humble beginnings of one of the most famous dogs in the world.

"One person who we sent the videos to jokingly said that me and Tatum should have our own talk show," Lever tells me. "After that, I thought it could do well on Instagram. So I put it on the platform and showcased the videos, and one of the joke page Instagrams picked it up, and [it] went pretty viral. They tagged us, and we got a few thousand followers overnight."

Today, Tatum has 485,000 followers on Instagram and an additional 3.5 million on TikTok — and his content remains true to its 2019 origins. Lever speaks for Tatum, giving his dog a cheeky ne'er-do-well persona as he loafs around the living room floor. Sometimes, Lever devises a few breezy, low-stakes sketches to shake up the formula — here, for instance, is Tatum selling some household junk at a yard sale. But there is one striking difference between Tatum’s earliest social media feeds and his current online presence: Now, fans can see the many, many brand deals brokered on Tatum's behalf. The pup is hawking pet food, cameras, and MGM movies like a quadrupedal spokesman. And it’s lucrative. Lever's wife, Nicole, still works at an elementary school, but as of June 2022, Charles runs the Tatum brand full-time; those funny voices pay the bills.

"I was surprised," Lever says, when I ask if he realized just how profitable the pet influencing industry was before he went viral. "It's changed our lives completely. We never saw this coming. We're just kind of rolling with it. We put Tatum first, and everything is a blessing."

"It's changed our lives completely. We never saw this coming.”

Tatum, of course, is far from the only pet to light up the social algorithms. The world has become enamored with famous donkeys, iguanas, and ferrets. TikTok is currently obsessed with an affable, photobombing emu; and the late Grumpy Cat — one of the original animal influencers — made it all the way to American Idol and the South by Southwest festival. There’s no rhyme or reason — no replicable trick — to transforming an animal into a celebrity. Those who know the industry well say the most successful pets possess a delectable quirk that the rest of us can't resist during our languid afternoon scrolls. I mean, just look at Marnie The Dog’s tongue, or Nala Cat’s eyes. Usually it happens by accident. One day you're sending a goofy video of a terrier to your friends, the next day you're quitting your job.

That’s the story of Thomas Shapiro, the owner of Tika — a luxurious Italian Greyhound and runway model who Shapiro dresses up in tracksuits, furs, and Met Gala-ready gowns. (It’s important to bundle up for life in chilly Montreal.) Shapiro says he started Tika's Instagram account in 2016, simply because he was posting too many photos of her on his own page. He quickly found an audience delighted by Tika’s outfits and left his job as a web developer in 2021. Since then, Shapiro has attempted to nail down a routine in a very unorthodox career; after all, they don't write books about how to manage a professional pet (at least, not yet), so Shapiro says he mostly makes it up as he goes along.

"I start my day by checking emails from Tika's agent. We touch base in the mid-morning to see if there's anything new [with branded content opportunities]," he tells me. "Tika wakes up and has her breakfast, and at lunchtime we'll do some content for TikTok or Instagram. She's really a professional. We get our shoots done in 10 or 15 minutes. Then we'll do stuff like Cameo. I try to be as active as I can in the DMs, just to keep her engaged."

Shapiro’s agent is part of The Dog Agency, a management firm built specifically to handle the inquiries, opportunities, and collaborations natural to the lives of animals (not just dogs) with a lot of clout — a CAA for pets. Signing with the company, Shapiro says, has been a lifesaver. As a web designer, he had no idea how to hammer out contracts on Tika's behalf. But The Dog Agency handles the affairs of dozens of furry superstars. They knew exactly what Tika was worth.

One day you're sending a goofy video of a terrier to your friends, the next day you're quitting your job.

"It really feels like they're Tika's agent, while I'm Tika's manager," Shapiro says. "They know what's best for her. We've worked together for over three years now. I'm not a lawyer, I don't work in the entertainment industry, and they handle all the negotiating. We've had brands want us to stay exclusive with them for 90 days, and they've negotiated them down to 30 days so I can work with other companies. The agency takes a cut obviously, but I'm still making way more money than I would be if I was handling those affairs on my own."

Neither Shapiro nor anyone else I interviewed was candid about how much money their pets were making — likely because the numbers are often outrageous. Evening Standard reported that, based on a study by OnBuy Pets Suppliers, top-tier animal influencers expect to generate around $30,000 per sponsored post, which frankly feels like Kardashian territory. (Who are we kidding? That family makes way more per post.) In an interview with Vox, Dog Agency CEO Loni Edwards said the revenue has a direct relationship with clout metrics. "The price varies and is usually tied to your follower number, where a scale of, say, 100,000 followers will get you a few hundred dollars and up," she explained. "I have clients who have a few million followers and are getting $15,000 per post."

“She's really a professional. We get our shoots done in 10 or 15 minutes.”

Other people in the pet-influencing world treat the business as a part-time hustle; a way to hang out with their pets and make some money on the side. Kristina Wolf, a San Diegan who works at a wildlife foundation, is the proud parent of one of TikTok's few famous snakes. His name is Linguini, and he's known for his silken yellow texture and big, soap-bubble eyes. "During the first [Covid] lockdown my sister and I got pretty bored,” Wolf tells me. “She insisted I make a TikTok for Linguini because he is adorable, and I could even teach people about snakes. I posted my first video, which got 16 million views, and I just kept going!"

Since then, Wolf has explored some commercial opportunities for Linguini. If you’re a superfan, you can don a Linguini hoodie or rest your head on a Linguini pillow. But Wolf doesn’t want to push the merch too aggressively, because she doesn't like the idea of her account looking "too monetized." That’s one of the paradoxes of being a pet influencer (or pet influencer parent); the animals themselves don't get to have a say in their fame, and responsible owners try to be mindful of that power imbalance.

"Now you have to sign two contracts, send pre-writes, pre-edits, [and] brands are never happy, it seems.”

"A lot of us OGs are burnt out," says Ashley Looper, who runs the Instagram account for TurboRoo, a chihuahua who uses a mobility prosthetic. Looper and her pet went viral in the early 2010s, when, she tells me, the industry moved a bit more slowly. She notes that the two of them have a longstanding contract with the dog food brand Purina, and the company originally told her to post "twice a month," a frequency that's become completely archaic in today's supercharged social media landscape.

"Now you have to sign two contracts, send pre-writes, pre-edits, [and] brands are never happy, it seems," Looper says. "It's a whole thing, the hashtags needed and the monetization tools. … The content used to feel genuine; now I feel it has to be posed and beautiful." Her comments raise a crucial question about pet influencing, one most pet parents would never expect to ask, until the followers start rolling in: How do you manage the work-life balance of a dog? How do you make sure the relationship remains pure?

Everyone I spoke with for this story made it clear that the health and wellbeing of their animals are their number one priority. But, they constantly field comments from people who don't believe them — who are certain there’s something inherently faulty about making a house pet into a public figure. Lever thinks those complaints are laughable. "I joke with people, 'If you worry that Tatum is being mistreated, watch a video without sound. He's just staring at you.' It's a 15-second video, and it takes 15 seconds to make," he says. "95% of the day, he's chilling. Right now he's just sitting on the couch, he's a very lazy dog." I'm inclined to believe Lever and the rest of the pet owners in this strange new industry. But like so many other mysteries in the funhouse of social media, we're just going to have to take their word for it.