Mochi has an eager smile, an enviable wardrobe and some killer dance moves. He hangs out at the pool a lot and sometimes takes trips to local vineyards, all of which he documents for his 8,000 Instagram followers. He is also a dog, one of the many new canine users on the platform.
On the heels of the pandemic puppy boom, Instagram has swelled with a new crop of dogfluencers. Mochi’s a good example: His owners had planned to get a puppy in the fall, but sweeping coronavirus restrictions left them with time on their hands and nowhere to go. They brought Mochi home in April and started his Instagram account immediately.
If a pandemic is a good time to get a dog, it’s also a good time to build the dog’s following. Stuck at home, people are spending lots more time online. In one global survey at the end of March, 43% of people said they were browsing social media more because of the pandemic, second only to streaming movies and TV shows.
That social media enthusiasm isn’t equally distributed. In the U.S., dogs are more popular than cats on and off Instagram, and right now, puppies are ascendant. According to social-monitoring tool CrowdTangle, the number of posts mentioning puppies jumped 38% in the last week of March, compared with the year-to-date weekly average. “Dog” rose a more modest 11%. “Cat,” meanwhile, showed an even smaller increase, slowly and indifferently rising over the next three weeks to a pandemic peak, up 9%.
That’s boosting the value of Dog Instagram, says Loni Edwards, a former lawyer who in 2015 founded a talent company to represent the human beings eager to monetize their pets’ adorability. “People are starting more accounts, they’re following more accounts, they’re liking, they’re engaging more, they’re spending more time on social media, which is just making the space more valuable,” she says.
In an otherwise bleak year for advertising, pet brands have become a bright spot, increasing spending on digital, TV and print promotions by 51% between January and March 23 compared with the same period in 2019, according to MediaRadar. As other Instagrammable industries — travel, beauty, dining, fashion — struggle to adapt their social media strategies to a stay-at-home world, cute animals remain, blissfully uncontroversial and increasingly attractive to advertisers.
“There’s a lot going on in the world. Just being able to take a mental break and see this adorable content is a wonderful thing,” says Edwards.
Hearts & Bones, a rescue based in Dallas and New York City, says it regularly has around 40 dogs in its care. Now there are just three, including Buddy Valastro, a Basset Hound mix named after the Cake Boss star. The organization is experiencing an “unprecedented level of interest in adoption,” it says. Puppies and dogs get snapped up as soon as their photos hit the web.
Shelter-in-place has resulted in animal shelters being emptied out, as the newly housebound seek furry friends to offset the loneliness of lockdown, or take advantage of weeks of work-from-home to raise their pups. Waiting lists at established breeders have surged. Online searches for puppies available for adoption and for sale are up sharply since March.
After searching out dogs online, new owners are eager to share their own. Fluffy white clouds of Samoyeds parade, English Bulldogs wiggle and shy Shiba Inus get caught peeking out. Photos and, increasingly, videos, capture pups playing, eating and sleeping. Like anything else on Instagram, it’s a carefully curated version of puppydom; gross parts are rarely shown. A whole new vocabulary — zoomies, bleps, sploots — describes their exploits. Trending hashtags like #TongueOutTuesday are self-explanatory.
“All of our friends have been adopting dogs recently and it’s like you have to start an account,” says Brittni Vega, who started the @harlowandsage account in 2013 to chronicle the contrast between her elderly Dachshund and younger Weimaraner. “It’s just so fun and you get attached to these dogs and it’s fun to see their daily life and nice to see them in happy homes.”
The sudden interest in all things canine has even caught the eye of Wall Street, with financial analysts more accustomed to crunching P/E ratios now pondering the popularity of Pomskies and Goldendoodles. “Prices of easy to look after crossbreeds such as Cockapoos have more than doubled,” declared BCA Research in a note sent to clients last month.
The ProShares Pet Care exchange-traded fund, better known as PAWZ, has surged 53% since the market bottomed in early March, outperforming the broader index. Animal-care prices are now one of the few areas where you can find inflation.
“It’s getting more and more saturated,” says Devon Noehring, who runs a 97,000-follower strong Instagram account for her Corgi pup, Willo. She says she earns about $400 per sponsored Instagram post. The major pet accounts can get up to $15,000 according to Edwards, the agent. “I’ve even started creating YouTube videos to help people who want to get into the Dog Instagram business,” says Noehring.
Golden retrievers and Labradors are America’s favorite breeds, but you wouldn’t know it from Instagram. The most popular pups on the network are French bulldogs, pugs and bulldogs, with their genetically engineered bug-eyes and smushed faces, according to a study this year. What’s good for the ‘gram isn’t always good for the dog, however. Many of these brachycephalic breeds come with significant respiratory issues and other health problems, making actual ownership a more expensive and high-maintenance proposition than social media might suggest.
Hilary Sloan, a rescue advocate who runs the enormously popular @ellabeanthedog account, points out that media has always had a tendency to spawn trends. Demand for Dalmations spiked after the release of Disney movies and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels got a boost from “Sex and the City.” “Social media is part of our daily life in a way that’s maybe more consistent, so it clearly has an impact,” she says.
The popularity of dogs with “merle” coats — a genetic quirk that results in a dappled appearance that looks particularly fetching in photos — seems to have soared in recent years. That fad also has an unfortunate side effect: the accidental breeding of “double merle” dogs at risk of severe hearing and vision impairment, occasionally born without eyes at all. “The number of merle and double merle pit bull-type dogs we have seen recently is astounding,” says Rose Adler, a professional dog trainer who co-runs a rescue organization for deaf and blind dogs called Keller’s Cause.
Social media also doesn’t reward prudence or patience. With many animal shelters emptied out and growing waiting lists for breeders, animal advocates say they’re concerned eager pup parents will opt for instant gratification via pet stores and puppy mills. Frauds are also on the rise. The Better Business Bureau’s scam tracker showed 1,6490 scams involving puppies between March and July 23, nearly triple the 586 logged in the same period last year.
Still, most dog loyalists believe that Instagram can be a rare force for good in the social media universe. Vega says that since the pandemic began, engagement has been higher on her accounts, including @harlowandfosters where she encourages adoption and shows off available dogs. Sloan, who lost her father to COVID-19 this year, feels the platform can help educate people about responsible dog ownership.
August Yocher, Mochi’s owner, is also enthusiastic. She’s used Instagram to track down Mochi’s littermate (@zoeyloaf) and arrange a play date, and is running giveaways to mark new milestones in followers. “For right now, it’s just a fun thing to do,” she says. “But I get a lot of messages, at least 10 a day, for sponsorships.”