Move over Fido: Cats are the new top dogs on the Internet

Special to The Globe and Mail

Stephen and Laureen Harper with their cat Stanley, in a photo taken from Stephen Harper's Facebook page

Type “lolcat” (as in, laugh-out-loud cat) into Google Images and you get 5 million results – images of cats juxtaposed with idiosyncratic captions, comprising misused verbs, leet speak and way too many Zs.

Repeat the search with “loldog” and you get 69,300 results.

Emily Huh, editor-in-chief of I Can Has Cheezburger, the biggest destination for lolcat material, suspects this discrepancy comes down to cat-people versus dog-people behaviour. “Unlike dog lovers who have dog parks as a place to socialize, cat people socialize on the Internet, which is like a giant litter box of cat lovers,” she says.

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However, the Internet is no longer the only place where cats rule.

According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's report on pet food trends, cat ownership is on the upswing, and outpacing that of dogs. Eight-and-a-half million cats were owned by Canadians in 2010, compared to 5 million dogs. It's normal for pet adoptions to slow in recessions, but only dogs have felt the bite of this downturn – ownership is down 3 per cent from the year before.

How did the cat, maligned by dog-lovers as lazy, snobby and boring, suddenly climb the upholstered social-media ladder?

Dogs have long been favoured by film and TV, almost always portrayed as having a heart of gold (remember Lassie, The Littlest Hobo). Last year, a dog (Uggie) generated Oscar buzz of his own, with fans pleading that the Jack Russell terrier get a nod in the Best Supporting Actor category for The Artist (Uggie did get an invitation to the ceremony). And when director Michel Hazanavicius accepted the award for best picture, he was sure to thank Uggie the Dog.

Meanwhile in the feline camp, there are characters like Garfield and Felix – classic antiheroes, too sarcastic or cool for their own good. In the 1970s, when McGruff the Crime Dog was urging kids to take a bite out of crime, Fritz the Cat appeared in comic strips as a sex-crazed druggie.

As YouTube shows, videos their own owners take portray cats as eccentric, skittish, self-satisfied and even narcissistic. The cats we like, tweet and share would likely only alert you to a well if they were thirsty. They're fickle, quirky and can't be controlled, but they're also intelligent and sometimes sophisticated. These are all qualities the me-first Internet generation is said to share – is that what's driving up their popularity?

Or could it be that the phenomenon of lolcats has endeared pet owners to the humour and personality cats can deliver, traits dogs have owned until now?

“Cats are more interesting and entertaining than other animals because they show a wide range of emotions,” says Ms. Huh.

The species has one prominent fan in its corner – Prime Minister Stephen Harper has bucked a trend, choosing to populate 24 Sussex Drive with cats instead of the more humanizing dogs.

Perhaps it's the perfect fit, made more perfect by Mr. Harper's majority – cats are, after all, independent, like to get their way. Also like a cat, Mr. Harper has often been criticized for his aloofness. He may not need voters' affection, but he can turn on the charm at certain moments. He took to Facebook after all to hold a naming contest for his new tabby, now “Stanley,” thanks to input from 5,000 Canadians.

All this momentum around cat ownership is meaning a turning of the tides in the pet world.

“I used to be really different if I had a cat shirt on,” says Hamilton-based veterinarian Elizabeth O'Brien, a feline practitioner for 27 years. “Now people are wearing them all the time.”

She says the spark in ownership is partly due to their rising status in pop culture, but also to urbanization. Not only are cats more adaptive to condo and apartment living, but more suited to lives of owners commuting between work, daycare and sports practice.

She has also observed many retiring life-long dog owners who are downsizing to cats along with condos. “They still want to have a pet … so a cat is easier.”

But this bargain has a price after all, because although cats are Canada's most common pet, they're still less likely than dogs to get fixed, vaccinated or receive medical attention. Care for Cats, a Hamilton-based non-profit organization for which Dr. O'Brien is a spokesperson, named 2011 the Year of the Cat, but it wasn't to celebrate the cat's sudden rise in status. The group wanted to draw attention to the fact that they're the most likely pet to be the victim of animal cruelty.



It's a paradox since humans have historically assigned cats great dignity. Long after homo sapien and felis silvestris evolved from the same predator 200 million years ago, the sapien returned to the felis in worship. The Egyptian goddess Bastet had the body of a woman and the head of a cat, and was believed to have had two natures: one gentle, one vicious. Pets were often mummified, and sculptures and painted images adorned tombs.

How things changed. Before the “Hang in there, baby” poster was everywhere in sight in the 1980s, there were the Brighton Cats, the collection of 19th century photographer Harry Pointer of cats in such poses as enjoying high tea or riding miniature penny-farthings.

Decades later he was outdone by Harry Whittier Frees, who dressed up his animal subjects and is believed to have created the first lolcat in the early 1900s: a kitten in an puffy-sleeved dress sitting demandingly in a high chair. The caption: “What's delaying my dinner?”

The “I Can Has Cheezburger?” cat, a chubby British shorthair who's since spawned books, shirts and rumours of a reality show based on the Cheezburger offices, was not the original lolcat. He was but one of the innumerable born from subculture that has its roots in “teh” website 4chan's infamous “random” forum. In 2006, an anonymous user fixed a kitty with a silly caption and posted it amongst the gore and porn that spontaneously populates the forum. It caught on, with claws so deep that users made a civic holiday out of it called “Caturdays.”

Today, on YouTube, all you need to guarantee an audience is a camera, a cat and a Roomba. Sometimes not even that.

There's the cat who begged “no no no,” the cat who soothed a crying baby, the cat who was very angry, the cat who responded to tickling with childlike glee, and the cat named Sparta who got his own rap video. Between them, over 200 million views.

In “Catvertising,” a viral video satirizing viral videos, a fictitious adman projects that, by 2015, “cat videos are going to represent 90 per cent of the content on the world wide web.” His colleague adds, “You think sometimes you're going to run out of material with cats, but you never do.”

There's certainly some truth to that.

There are sites for cats that look like today's TV personalities like Parks and Recreation's Ron Swanson, or that have no likeness at all, such as Chase No Face, a rescue cat with no face and 18,000 Facebook fans.

And, if a cat isn't cute enough on its own, you can “bread” it in four easy steps: take a piece of bread, cut a whole an inch thicker than the cat's head, gently place it on the head, and take a photo. Almost 1,400 people have, and posted it to breadedcats.com.

Cats even have a set of iPad games. There have been 300,000 downloads of products developed by Hiccup, a California start-up specializing in apps for cats. For a buck, Paint for Cats lets owners create sharable abstract art by tricking their pets into swatting at a digital mouse that leaves colourful splats and smears behind. It has a near-perfect rating on iTunes, although another product received complaints from owners whose cats nearly purchased a $1 upgrade by randomly pawing the screen.

But the current outbreak of ailurophilia, an unusual fondness of cats, isn't restricted to new media. The big screen is also starting to embrace these antiheroes.

In filmmaker Miranda July's 2011 indie hit, The Future, a rescue cat wasn't just the catalyst for tragic comedy, but the scruffy-voiced narrator. And a series of Saturday Night Live skits called Laser Cats enacts a world where the intergalactic crime fighter's weapon of choice is a mutated cat shooting beams from its eyes.

When the co-star of Laser Cats, Andy Samberg, graced the cover of Wired last year, there's another reason to why he shared it with a wide-eyed kitten. The headline was “How the Internet Saved Comedy,” and the first word below it was “Lolcats!”

Since buying the Cheezburger blog in 2007, Cheezburger Network CEO Ben Huh (Emily's husband, whose cat allergy stops the couple from owning actual cats) has purchased more than 60 other humour sites, including FAIL Blog. Their empire grown into a multimillion-dollar company with 24 million users uploading 135,000 pictures and videos a week and helping accumulate half-a-billion monthly page views.

Almost half of that content goes to I Can Has Cheezburger, which now includes all animals because, according to Huh, it's not just about cats any more. Cats are just a means to an end.

“People have the desire to be happy. They like to laugh and they want to share the things that they find funny with other people,” she said. “Also, people like to think they are funny so when others laugh, it's gives them credibility.”

In providing easy laughs, other animals can be just as effective, as the inclusion of different four-legged lols on I Can Has Cheezburger has shown. “When we purchased the site, the traffic continued to increase, which was when we realized that it was more about humour rather than just cats.”

Which animal can knock cats off the top of the social-media tree? Hamsters? Manatees? Honey badgers?

“Owls and penguins have had a steady rise on the Internet for the past few years,” Ms. Huh maintains. But cats will rule forever.

GREAT MOMENTS IN CAT MEMES

1906

Harry Whittier Frees puts a paper hat on a cat at the family dinner table. Hilarity ensues and Life magazine calls him “most famed U.S. photographer of dressed-up animals.”

1929

Parents magazine publishes an ad for “a genuine photograph” of the Laughing Cat: Every mother will want one for the nursery, it says. And she could, for $1.

1973

Under pressure to resign, Richard Nixon's vice-president, Spiro Agnew, is presented by supporters with a popular inspirational poster of a kitten dangling from a branch. It reads “Hang in there, baby.”

1984

Artist Charlie Schmidt makes a keyboard-playing hand puppet out of his cat Fatso and videotapes it. Fatso dies in 1987, 20 years before he becomes a YouTube superstar.

2006

The anything-goes imageboard 4chan creates, and falls in love with, lolcats.

2011

Nyan, an 8-bit cartoon cat with a Pop Tart for a torso, flies through outer space on a loop, set to a Japanese song similar to the “Hamster Dance.” It's been viewed 71 million times and counting.

2012

Though the original “breading” photo of a cat wearing sliced bread like a lion's mane is a year old, it trended in January 2012 when a Facebook page encourages people to “try this at home

Edmonton writer and rapper Omar Mouallem is the author of Amazing Cats .

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