If we know one thing, we know the internet loves pets.
Take a look at the front page of Reddit on any given day—you’ll practically see a wall of cats and doing some ridiculously cute things.
In most cases, those pets enjoy a quick 15 minutes of fame, and on the sixteenth minute, we forget about them. When was the last time you thought about that bird that sings the Drowning Pool song? Ever hear anything else about that one cat that jumped out of the window?
Every once in a while, however, a pet’s viral fame doesn’t die out. Grumpy Cat was popular enough to get her own Lifetime movie, and she was voiced by Aubrey Plaza. Keyboard Cat made public appearances and ran a veritable social media empire before passing away in 2018. (For the record, though, that was the second keyboard cat, and it wasn’t even alive when the original video was filmed.)
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We spoke to a few pet owners who were lucky enough to achieve viral stardom to find out what life’s like when the internet’s obsessed with your furry friend.
1. Viral stardom doesn’t always happen right away.
“The important thing to understand is that [Lil BUB] never went crazy viral,” says audio engineer Mike Bridavsky. He owns Lil BUB, one of the most famous cats on the internet, which is certainly saying something.
He says that, in his case, viral fame came slowly.
“It started in April 2012. How it happened, I don’t know—I had a Tumblr blog called The BUB Blog, just for friends. It was before ‘your cat going viral’ was a thing. She was building up a big cult following, which I thought was amusing. One photo did go viral, at least for 2012 standards, and then that post got to Reddit, or…I don’t know how any of that s*** works.”
Soon, Lil BUB had her own subreddit, and pictures of the cat quickly spread across the web. Lil BUB, by the way, has several unusual genetic conditions, and as a result, she has dwarfism, comically large eyes, and a tongue that never seems to go fully into her mouth. The internet loves a slightly bizarre-looking animal.
That also explains the viral appeal of Bertie, an awkward-looking Italian greyhound with a sizable Instagram presence. Bertie’s owner, Brendan (he didn’t provide his last name), says that he didn’t notice when Bertie’s video started to spread.
“It was 2015 or so, and my girlfriend put a video on Vine, didn’t think much of it,” he says. “I checked back a month later, and it had millions of views. It happened really quickly—unexpectedly, for sure.”
The video in question showed Bertie sticking out his tongue on command. It’s about seven seconds long. If you haven’t seen it, enjoy.
2. You can make a ton of money—if you’re up for it.
Viral fame can be extraordinarily lucrative. In 2014, British tabloid Express reported that Grumpy Cat’s owner, Tabatha Bundesen, had earned an astounding $100 million from licensing images of her cat. Bundesen denied the reports, but didn’t specify her actual earnings.
In any case, Grumpy Cat is kind of a big deal. Advertisers have used the cat’s image to sell Friskies cat food, coffee drinks, and greeting cards, and the extra income allowed Bundesen to quit her waitressing job.
And while Grumpy Cat is a bit of an outlier, even moderately famous pets like Bertie can bring home the bacon—or at least the Beggin’ Strips.
“After the [Bertie] video went viral, we started getting contacted by different video licensing companies,” Brendan says. “We made a bit of money from that, and we decided, ‘Let’s see where this goes.’ We created an Instagram page for him, and from there, we got a number of sponsorships.”
That’s why many of the pets have agents. Grumpy Cat, for instance, is represented by agent Ben Lashes, who also manages Keyboard Cat, Nyan Cat, Doge, and Success Kid. A who’s who of modern memes, if you will.
— Ben Lashes (@BenLashes) November 27, 2017
We contacted Brendan through a publicist, but he says that Bertie’s earnings aren’t a major part of his household’s income. He doesn’t have plans to dramatically expand his meme-pet empire.
“He kind of pays for himself, so that’s nice,” Brendan notes. “We always have dog toys, dog clothes, those sort of things, arriving. Sometimes, we’ll say, ‘Maybe we should merchandise and capitalize on it a bit more.’ I might do that at some point, but it’s just a funny thing that happened. I don’t really foresee it becoming my main thing, but who knows? Maybe at some point, I’ll take it a little more seriously.”
3. When the offers come rolling in, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.
Bridavsky began earning money from Lil BUB’s fame within several weeks of the cat’s big Reddit post. He realized that he had an opportunity to sell some shirts he’d made when Lil BUB was just a local celeb-kitty.
“People were starting to pay attention, and my friend had designed this shirt. We put it up for presale when that one photo went ‘viral,’ but I didn’t expect much,” he says. “We sold a crazy amount of them. When that happened, I didn’t really expect it, so I was just donating the money to our local animal shelter.”
Lil BUB’s fans kept asking for more merchandise, so Bridavsky decided to set a few ground rules. He decided not to get an agent or actively seek out merchandising opportunities. If someone wanted to approach him with an idea for a Lil BUB book or social media campaign, he’d listen—but he wouldn’t do anything that made him uncomfortable.
“I wanted it to be a celebration of BUB,” Bridavsky says. “I wanted it to be raising awareness for homeless pets. I wanted it to involve my friends—we’re from a small Midwest town, so this type of exposure was kind of a rare opportunity. …Everything we did had to have a charitable component to it, and it had to be in that spirit.”
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He estimates that Lil BUB has brought in $600,000 for charitable causes, most of which help pets with special needs. Even so, some people don’t seem to get the point.
“In 2016, we did a book with Lil BUB and Norbert [an internet famous dog],” Bridavsky says. “We did a Kickstarter, and it was massively successful. A major publisher approached us and wanted to sell the book in stores across the country, so I said, ‘Sure, but part of the profits have to go to charity.'”
The original book helped to raise funds for Lil BUB’s Big FUND for the ASPCA, the first national fund for special-needs pets, so Bridavsky figured that it was a no-brainer. The publisher refused.
“I was like, ‘Seriously? I’ve already done all of the work to set up the charity. This is easy,'” Bridavsky says. “They still said no, so I refused.”
Pet owners who decide to hire licensing companies and agents quickly learn that they don’t always get a say in their pets’ projects—and in some cases, they learn about them after the fact. That’s what happened when Bertie’s video showed up on a Saturday Night Live sketch starring Tom Hanks.
“The next day, we started getting texts from our friends,” Brendan recalls. “We said, ‘No, that was just a dog that looked like him.’ But then we looked up the clip, and yeah, it was him.”
4. You’ve got to be alright with your pet becoming the center of attention.
“It’s a weird thing to happen, because suddenly, overnight, more people care about my cat than what I’ve been working towards for my entire life,” he says, laughing. “And I had to come to terms with that—I was okay with it. But I decided, if this was what I was doing with my life, I wanted it to mean something.”
Bridavsky wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I realized pretty quickly that I’d much rather have BUB get famous than have myself or my band get famous,” he says. “I had this level of separation, and it was all about BUB. It was much easier to make decisions and say no to stuff. I never set out to do it, so my ego wasn’t involved. I had no aspirations, no goals. I was only doing it if people were interested in it.”
Brendan notes that Bertie’s success is slightly humbling, but he’s come to terms with it.
“I don’t know if ‘discouraging’ is the right word,” he says, “but it’s a very weird feeling to know that you can work really hard and spend your whole life doing something, but at the end of the day, your dog’s going to get more attention for sticking its tongue out.”
With that said, he tries not to take it too seriously. Hey, if the internet’s in love with your pet, might as well enjoy the ride.
“If it happens to you, I’d just say to go with it,” Brendan says. “It’s a random thing that could happen, and you can’t really predict it or know when it will end. You can’t really know why it happened, either—just embrace it.”