How the Internet’s Cuddliest Influencers Get Paid

September 9, 2016, 4:45 PM UTC

“I used to work at Ralph Lauren, but I wanted to spend time with my dog so I quit.”

This is less crazy than it sounds — well, slightly. As Yena Kim tells it, everything began one rainy weekend when, bored, she dressed her dog in a shirt and snapped a few pictures. “Instead of running off, he started giving me these angles, these model poses,” she says.

And like that, a star was born. Today, her dog, Bodhi, a striking Shiba Inu, is a model and social media personality who goes by the name Menswear Dog. Yena Kim is his full-time handler; she quit her job a few years ago to focus on Menswear Dog-related projects, which include sponsorships, ad campaigns for Coach, American Apparel, and Brooks Brothers, and a book.

Menswear Dog is just one member of a growing number of dogs, cats, pigs, hamsters, birds, and other creatures who, thanks to their large followings on social media, generate income via sponsored content and paid appearances. While most don’t earn enough for their owners to quit their day jobs, the demand for these pet “influencers” is growing. Brands, from Vogue to JetBlue to Mercedes-Benz, are harnessing popular animal accounts to promote their products, a byproduct of the rise of influencer marketing, in which companies reach smaller, but more engaged, audiences through organic-style posts. And animal accounts may have an edge over popular human influencers. “You don’t notice that you are getting advertised to, or you don’t care, because you’re seeing a super cute dog,” speculates Katie Sturino, the owner of Toast, another Insta-famous pet. “You are getting ads but it’s like ‘Yeah, so what? It’s cute.’”

doug_aziz-1hamlet_jillmarnie_kristengrumpy_tom Put more simply, “no one goes on Instagram and hates on pets,” says Shirley Hao, the owner of Tibby, a Corgi who has more than 150,000 followers on the platform. Tibby was recently tapped to join ecommerce furniture company Wayfair’s 13-member “pet squad.” Hao is allocated a bi-montly furniture budget and, in return, features posts with select pieces — like this chair — on Tibby’s account.

Related: When Fluffy’s Surgery Costs More Than a Car

Most of Tibby’s sponsorship arrangements take the form of merchandise in return for a post. But ever since the Corgi passed the 50,000 follower mark on Instagram, some brands have been willing to offer cash in order to be featured. Right now, Hao’s going rate is $500 for a post on Instagram, with extra fees if the photo posts on multiple platforms (Tibby has a Tumblr and Facebook page). To date, Tibby has made more than $25,000. It’s not enough for Hao to quit her day job — a social media consultant, she likes what she does and wouldn’t want to throw in the towel even if Tibby earned more — but it’s a good side hustle.

For dogs with higher follower counts, however, the payoffs are larger. “If you have over a million followers, you should be getting $5,000 to $10,000, for an Instagram post,” says Sturino. With more than 350,000 followers Toast isn’t at that level, but demand is high enough that Sturino dialed back her full-time PR job so she could focus on the dog’s various appearances, sponsorships and other engagements.

Kim, who quit her day job a few years back, doesn’t regret it. “It’s kind of like a freelance job,” she says. Payment depends on the scope of the project, but Bodhi can expect a few thousand for a photo shoot. This isn’t the career Kim envisioned for herself — she knows it’s surreal, but that’s what makes it great.

“What an absurd life,” she says. “But I get to hang out with my dog, so I’m super happy about that.”