Pet Influencers: Animal Portraiture, Domesticity & Social Media
Pets take up most of our social media feed, but precious little of our intellectual attention: architect, theorist and educator Dr Javier Fernández Contreras elaborates on the history of animals in domesticity.

A saturated fusion of media consumption and production has brought forward new questions about non-human relationships, even with our cherished and furry friends. Pets take up most of our social media feed, but precious little of our intellectual attention: in this essay, the architect, theorist and educator Dr Javier Fernández Contreras elaborates on the history of animals in domesticity.

What is a pet?

In 1980, art critic and novelist John Berger defined a pet as an animal "either sterilised or sexually isolated, extremely limited in its exercise, deprived of almost all other animal contact, and fed with artificial foods."1 In 1987, the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals legislated that, "By pet animal is meant any animal kept or intended to be kept by humans, particularly in their households, for private enjoyment and companionship."2 More recently, in 2023, François Gemenne, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), declared "the cat a disaster for biodiversity, the dog a disaster for the climate,"3 referring to cats’ feral behaviour after captivity and to the pollution caused by pet feed.

While other forms of animal confinement, such as the farm, the zoo, or the circus, have been both spatially studied and ethically contested in recent years, critical surveys of domesticity from the perspective of pets are relatively scarce.

The definitions above are all both scientifically and culturally constructed. Pets have lived alongside humans since antiquity, and indeed, influential contemporary scholars like Donna Haraway or Yuval Noah Harari argue that human cognition, not to mention emotions, have evolved in parallel with that of pets, especially dogs.4 Pets’ exponential development in recent decades is typical of postmodern societies, and it indeed raises questions about animal rights, climate change, and human identity at large. What is less studied is that pets only exist as a by-product of space design and interior architecture. While other forms of animal confinement, such as the farm, the zoo, or the circus, have been both spatially studied and ethically contested in recent years, critical surveys of domesticity from the perspective of pets are relatively scarce.5

Grumpy Cat | Typical Instagram portrait, and official communication of the pet’s death in May 2019. The official Instagram account (@realgrumpycat, 2.6M followers) continues to regularly communicate on the animal’s legacy and memory, with more than 150 posts since 2020.

Even less analysed is the phenomena of “pet influencers”, that is, domesticated animals whose very existence is mediated and monetised by their owners, mainly on social media platforms. The phenomenon itself is recent. Even though Wikipedia contains numerous profiles of animal celebrities such as Doug the Pug or Grumpy Cat, as of April 2024, the entry “pet influencer” lacked a proper definition, instead redirecting towards the larger entry of “internet celebrity.” If online celebrities exist in front of the camera, their portraits becoming the avatars of their mediated personas, pet influencers belong to the tradition of animal portraits, with the camera always pointing at them from the human’s side. From the mansion of Nala Cat to the pictures with celebrities of the dog Jiffpom, from the multi-platform influence of Tucker Budzyn to the anthropomorphised behaviour of the Floofnoodles ferrets, what emerges from this study is a new way of understanding the contemporary home as a place of animal domestication, online mediatisation, and ultimately, domination.

Tucker Budzyn | Impact on social media platforms as per March 2024. From left to right: Instagram (3.7M followers), Facebook (4.5M), YouTube (5.3M), TikTok (11.4M), X (62K).

Profile vs. Portrait: The Genealogy of Animal Representation

The depiction of animals through images runs through human history. From cave art to deified animals in Egypt, from the Nazca lines to Roman mosaics, their representation has evolved along with human civilization. However, the question of pet portraiture is of a different nature. Whether portrayed isolated or staged with their human companions, the insertion of animals within interior spaces, and more particularly, the moment when they begin looking straight into the eyes of spectators, establishing a precise empathy through images, has a different genealogy. In Medieval Pets, writer Kathleen Walker-Meikle overturns traditional perceptions of animals' roles in the Middle Ages by emphasising their status as beloved household pets, exploring their acquisition, care, and depictions in art and literature, and covering species such as dogs, cats, monkeys, squirrels, and parrots.6

This shifting bond may have paved the way not only for a new relationship with companion species but also for a new means of perceiving them through images. While the perspectival incorporation of the viewer into the space of the painting in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait from 1434 has been widely discussed, less attention has been paid to the fact that the only sentient being looking into the eyes of the audience is actually the dog, thereby breaking through the space of representation. Other artists in the following decades and centuries, including Leonardo da Vinci, Diego Velázquez, and Sofonisba Anguisola, would also incorporate pets within the representation of portrait and domesticity.

In the 18th century, animal portraiture would be taken to a different level with the individualisation of feelings within the frame, clearly exposed by artist Jacques Laurent Agasse, a trained veterinarian who would move from the picturesque, object status of the animal to a more in-depth exploration of its psyche through his paintings for the British bourgeoisie. In the 19th century, the relationship between pets and domestic interiors would take on its modern, pre-social media shape through the work of Cassius M. Coolidge, who popularised the genre of anthropomorphised animals performing human social behaviour for advertising purposes, as can be seen in Dogs Playing Poker, a series of paintings where dogs are seen smoking and playing cards.

It would be the invention of photography first and the development of cinema later that would further increase the reification of animals through images in the 19th and 20th centuries. Pets have played significant roles in the history of photography and cinema, with iconic figures like Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and Terry capturing the hearts of audiences. This historical trend has been exacerbated in the 21st century with the institutionalisation of the internet and the rise of social media platforms. At the basis of animals’ circulation on media is, often, the monetisation of their behaviour.

Buddy & Boo | Space types where the pets are normally portrayed. From left to right, top to bottom: car, living room, kitchen, bedroom, terrace, dining room, corridor, kids’ bed, furniture (inside), staircase, corridor, kid’s bedroom

Pet Influencers: New Celebrities, New Domesticities

“The show features contestants called "pet influencers" who live together in a specially constructed house that is isolated from the outside world. The name is inspired by Big Brother from George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the Pet Influencers are continuously monitored during their stay in the house by live television cameras as well as personal audio microphones.”7

- Wikipedia, Big Brother entry (*edited by the author), 2024

The Wikipedia description of the TV show Big Brother is interesting. A literary exercise in replacing the word “housemates” in the original text with “pet influencers” reveals new forms of domesticity — specially constructed (or technically equipped) houses where animals perform physical isolation while maintaining mediated connections with the outside world through social media. Can this be considered a new form of online celebrity and staged domesticity?

This appears to be the case with some of the most notable pet influencers of the last decades, such as Buddy and Boo, Jiffpom,8 and Grumpy Cat, who have already passed away, as well as Nala Cat and Doug the Pug, who are still alive and broadcasting. These are mostly US-based profiles which, beyond their shared celebrity status, tell the story of American pet life. A brief analysis of each reveals how their biographies are entwined with their environments — hybrids of domestic spaces and production studios — especially with their online personas as anthropomorphised versions of their animal selves.

In analysing the domesticities of pet influencers, it becomes evident that their mediated existence is intricately linked with their living environments.

In analysing the domesticities of pet influencers, it becomes evident that their mediated existence is intricately linked with their living environments. Despite variations in the portrayal of their habitats, certain patterns emerge, offering insight into how these animals are presented to their audiences and the ethical implications therein. For instance, Buddy and Boo, two Pomeranian Spitzes born in 2003 and 2006 respectively, rose to fame when Boo's Facebook page, created by his owner in 2009, garnered public attention after endorsements from celebrities like Kesha and Khloe Kardashian. They were mainly depicted with other dogs of the family either at home or on vacation, and also occasionally shown outdoors, on trips, or simply in their yard or garden. Observing their images, they appeared in various rooms of the house, mainly in the living room, and their small size and full-body photography centred the visibility of their surroundings, creating an intimate atmosphere of architectural rooms. Similarly, Jiffpom, a Pomeranian born in 2010 in Illinois, gained recognition through social media engagement with human celebrities, as well as an actor featuring in films and video clips such as Katy Perry’s Dark Horse, turning a profit through public appearances and merchandise. With a preference for a dressed body and close-ups, Jiffpom's online presence revealed fewer glimpses of his owner’s apartment, showcasing specific areas like the bedroom and living room while leaving others hidden from public view. This selective portrayal suggests a curated narrative that emphasises certain aspects of his living environment while concealing others. In a more camouflaged domestic set, Grumpy Cat, a pet with feline dwarfism born in Arizona in 2012, regularly featured compositions with her body disguised in costumes or domestic paraphernalia, and even collaged backgrounds and studio settings, obscuring the visibility of her actual living space.

Doug the Pug | Comparison between the pet’s X (Twitter) and TikTok’s accounts, as per total data available as of March 2024. X (Twitter): 2.7M followers; Dominant viewpoint: full-body portrait; Activity: wearing a suit, lying down, listening to his mistress sing; Interior: 43% Day: 93%; Human presence (visible): 38%. TikTok: 5.9M followers; Dominant photograph: full-body; Activity: lying down, walking, listening to his mistress sing; Interior: 56%; Day: 89%; Human presence (visible): 45%

Doug the Pug, a celebrity dog born in 2012 in Tennessee, follows a similar pattern, with a focus on portraits and close-ups that render interior spaces secondary to the composition, where only fragments of walls, sofas, or bed linen are visible as simple backgrounds with a preference for white and grey tones. His economic model extends beyond domesticity, encompassing public ceremonies and charitable endeavours through the Doug the Pug Foundation to help children battling cancer and other life-threatening diseases. In contrast, Nala Cat, a Siamese and Tabby mix born in 2010, displays a wider visibility of domestic spaces, her body regularly undressed and framed within the interior spaces of her owners’ mansion in California. She is consistently presented in specific domestic spaces such as the living room, the kitchen, or the bedroom, and is notably absent from outdoor spaces, which she cannot access as all windows have mosquito nets to prevent her from fleeing. This deliberate confinement of her living environment suggests a conscious effort to maintain a particular image of domesticity for media consumption, expanding into television appearances and lucrative endorsements, making her the most valuable cat profile worldwide, with a net worth exceeding $100 million by 2023.9

Jiffpom | Analysis of the latest posts on Jiff Pom’s Instagram account, including pictures with human celebrities. All celebrities have at least 1M followers.

From events to merchandising, from video clips to charity, the public image of these pet influencers seems to differ little from those of their human counterparts. Converted into digital avatars of themselves, their online celebrity remains active beyond their lifespan. A comparative analysis of these profiles unveils multifaceted dimensions of their virtual presence, the business strategies employed by their owners, and the lifestyles they project.10 In terms of popularity and reach, Jiffpom and Tucker Budzyn, a Golden Retriever born in 2018 in Michigan, stand out with the highest combined follower counts across platforms, surpassing 31 million and 25 million, respectively. Jiffpom's dominance is particularly evident on TikTok with over 20 million followers, while Nala Cat holds the record for being the most followed cat on Instagram with 4.5 million followers. Buddy and Boo have a substantial following, peaking at 14 million on Facebook and 500K on Instagram, while Grumpy Cat maintains a considerable following with millions of followers across platforms, including 7.6 million on Facebook, 2.6 million on Instagram, and 1.5 million on X.11

The living environments of these pets shape the narratives constructed around them, affecting how their bodies and lives are inserted within the space and the camera.

Drawing parallels with the stage sets of Big Brother, where environments are meticulously designed to evoke certain emotions and interactions, the domesticities of these pet influencers can be seen as curated stages for their online personas. Just as the Big Brother house served as a backdrop for drama and narrative development, the living environments of these pets shape the narratives constructed around them, affecting how their bodies and lives are inserted within the space and the camera. They all communicate during the daytime, the nocturnal dimension of their animality being adjusted to the circadian rhythm of their owners. While these pet influencers offer entertainment and joy to their audiences, the commodification of their behaviour and the mediatisation of their domestic lives raises concerns about the boundaries between public spectacle and private space, between lack of consent and animal rights. These animals are thrust into the spotlight of social media, where selected aspects of their lives are subject to scrutiny and commodification. All pet influencers have leveraged their online presence for monetisation through merchandising, brand partnerships, sponsored posts, and appearances. Jiffpom and Nala Cat's economic models involve a wide range of merchandise and sponsored events, indicating diversified revenue streams. Beyond partnerships with companies and sponsored posts, Tucker also offers products for pets and humans on Amazon, while most of his $2 million annual revenue comes from social media.12 Buddy and Boo generated significant profits primarily through brand partnerships, with Boo's owner authoring a bestselling book about the pet’s cuteness. Doug the Pug's economic model extends to philanthropy, with the establishment of his foundation.13 Finally, Grumpy Cat's legacy continues through licensed products even after her passing, highlighting the enduring nature of her economic model.

Pet Close-ups: The Hands of the Ventriloquist

Ventriloquism, the art of making inanimate puppets appear alive, has a storied history dating back centuries. However, it wasn't until the 20th century that animal figures began to take centre stage, bringing a new dimension to the act. It is interesting to note that these animal puppets became influential mainly through their audio-visual impact via TV broadcasting. As opposed to the theatres and entertainment venues of the 18th and 19th centuries, where ventriloquism thrived with large, child-like scale dummies visible from a distance, the television format of the 20th century facilitated the use of smaller pet-like figures such as Farfel, Sooty, and Orville (respectively dog, bear, and duck dummies), enabling close-up shots that emphasised their disproportionately large faces. It is therefore no coincidence that some of the pet influencers discussed above have disproportionately small bodies with regards to the size of their heads. Of the top ten most followed pet accounts worldwide, two feature Pomeranians, compact, sturdy dogs weighing 2–3 kilograms and measuring 20–35 cm high at the withers; one centres on a pug, a dog with cobby body proportions; and another on a cat with feline dwarfism.

These first pet celebrities featured mainly dogs and cats that did not require human hands to scaffold their postures. However, recent years have seen the rise of a new generation of pet influencers whose anthropomorphizing goes beyond simple dressing up and human-like activities and behaviour. This seems to be the case with That Little Puff and Floofnoodles, respectively a cat and a ferrets-based profile, which have become celebrities since 2020. Their owners are post-Covid ventriloquists, and their pets are online dummies. Interestingly, they mostly communicate through native video platforms like TikTok (where they respectively boast 33.4 and 17.4 million followers), and the editing of their videos is accelerated, with shots often under one second long, in which their postures are stop-motioned without showing the in-between tempo of the human hands that position them.

That Little Puff | Portraiture and communication style of the official TikTok account (@thatlittlepuff, 33.3M followers): About 200 videos/year; Portrait: tabletop to bust level; Activities: Life hacks/cooking; Indoors: 100%; Daytime: 100%, with artificial light support; Human presence (non-visible): 100%

The phenomenon of That Little Puff, under the ownership of Lynch Zhang from Puff Media Group, exemplifies the confluence of pet ownership, social media, and commercialisation. During the pandemic, the closure of their restaurants prompted Zhang and his family to explore homemade cuisine, inadvertently sparking the interest of their cat, which, through curated content primarily featuring cooking demonstrations and life hacks, amassed a significant following across platforms like TikTok and YouTube. While predominantly featured alone in videos, often engaging in human-like activities, the cat is largely assisted by humans, its body strategically edited to create the illusion of independence.

In the case of Floofnoodles, human intervention is even more readable because of the very animal morphology and size of ferrets. The entire strategy is built around the plurality of animals under one brand. Floofnoodles is a TikTok and Instagram profile featuring the staging of various ferrets: Lucas (deceased at 6 in 2021), Drixie (deceased at 3 in 2022), Matthew, Daisy, and Mathilda, who are still alive. Controversies arose over the owner's portrayal of the ferrets’ lives. In 2022, there were allegations that mistreatment led to the premature deaths of two ferrets, sparking the @justice4lucas movement.14 There are also claims that Drixie died of starvation after two days without food. These controversies are entangled with the owner’s bodily presence, as he is visible in many videos controlling the animals’ postures. Completely disconnected from outdoor environments and any visible circadian rhythm, the ferrets of Floofnoodles are never shown interacting naturally; instead, they are constantly staged by their owner, even when they are sleeping. Because of their very animal morphology and size, the type of framing is not portraiture but rather full-body presence, whether propped up (“dancing”) or “lying” on the bed. The camera distance from their faces ensures the longevity and continued renewal of their brand by not relying on just one ferret.

Floofnoodles | Official TikTok account (@floofnoodles, 17.4M followers) and merchandising products, March 2024.

In comparing the domestic spaces utilised as production studios by That Little Puff and Floofnoodles, distinct approaches emerge regarding the integration of pets within the narrative framework. That Little Puff predominantly employs a fixed indoor setting, notably the kitchen, with occasional incorporation of a background setting for video collages, emphasising an anthropomorphised portrayal of the cat without distracting image changes. This strategy centralises the cat as the focal point, facilitated by the features of the TikTok platform, where the majority of That Little Puff’s content is posted. It is characterised by frontal, interior shots with consistent lighting, mainly depicting “manual” activities and cooking. Conversely, Floofnoodles showcases a dynamic utilisation of various household spaces, predominantly featuring the ferrets' activities, such as cooking scenes in the kitchen, playful interactions on stairs, or showering moments in the bathroom. The focus primarily remains on the ferrets’ bodies, with limited visibility of the interior spaces due to the chosen camera angles.

Coda: Animals, Selfies and the Right to the Image

“Naruto, a crested macaque in Indonesia, has no rights to the (adorable) selfies he took on a nature photographer’s camera, according to the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. That court upheld a lower court’s previous ruling, which said, basically, that animals can’t file copyright infringement suits.”15

- “Monkey Does Not Own Selfie Copyright, Appeals Court Rules,” CNN, April 24, 2018

Animal portraiture has intensified in the 21st century with the rise of social media. With smartphones, humans have also diversified the portrait range, adding the selfie to the most circulated image types. Even though the self-portrait belongs to the history of pictures, the temporal relation between the subject and the object (the body as an image) has traditionally been asynchronous in this format. Yet in the selfie, this tempo is synchronous, therefore blurring the line between subject and object, and further reinforcing human exceptionalism in the production of pictures. Because, even though cases of selfies taken by animals have been reported, most non-human species cannot shoot them because of the configuration of their extremities, and therefore have limited agency concerning the right to their own image.

In 2011, nature photographer David Slater published portraits of crested macaques in Sulawesi, claiming they were self-portraits taken by the animals themselves, sparking copyright disputes over whether the images belonged to the photographer or to the primates.16 Beyond legal implications, the monkey selfie copyright dispute spurred discussions on the ethical treatment of animals and their autonomy, which are especially relevant in the context of the pet influencers analysed in this paper. Philosophical inquiries into the nature of representation and agency further complicate the debate surrounding animals' rights: granting non-human beings control over their own voice aligns with principles of non-anthropocentric ethics and political ecology.17 Conversely, critics contend that attributing legal status to animals may be both anthropocentric and impractical, potentially reinforcing human exceptionalism.18

Since pets primarily exist in confined domestic environments, it follows that this issue necessitates further architectural, ethical and philosophical reflection to understand the implications of animal representation in the digital age.

The proliferation of pet photographs in recent years, particularly through social networks, raises important questions. When placed in front of the camera, both anonymous pets and influencers are actively used and objectified through image production, their pictures competing for likes and comments. Their corporeality, constrained by human intervention, blurs the lines between subject and object. Since pets primarily exist within interior spaces, particularly in confined domestic environments, it follows that this issue necessitates further architectural, ethical and philosophical reflection to understand the implications of animal representation in the digital age, ultimately questioning the role of architecture and social media in the perpetuation of human control over animals.

© 2024 | Javier Fernández Contreras


Javier Fernández Contreras is a Geneva-based architect, architectural theorist, and the head of the Department of Space Design/Interior Architecture at HEAD – Genève (HES-SO). His work explores the relationship between architecture, representation, and media, with a specific focus on the role of interiors in the construction of contemporaneity. He holds a master’s degree in architecture and a PhD in Architectural Theory from ETSAM at the Polytechnic University of Madrid. Contreras is the director of several BA, MA and research programmes. Recent publications include the books The Miralles Projection (AR+D, 2020), Manifesto of Interiors: Thinking in the Expanded Media (HEAD – Publishing, 2021), Intimacy Exposed: Toilet, Bathroom, Restroom (Spector Books, 2023), and A Nocturnal History of Architecture (Spector Books, 2024).

Pet Influencers / Data Analytics
BA students in Interior Architecture, HEAD – Genève

Analysis conducted as part of the Theory of Mediated Spaces module (Prof. Javier Fernández Contreras, spring semester 2024): Buddy and Boo by Alexis Lang, Manon Lebon, and Maelle Mabru; Doug the Pug by Cléa Bertossa, Aurore Biache, and Alexia Dahman; Floofnoodles by Marie Mamou Blanché, Elise Mathis, and Missilia Mendy; Grumpy Cat by Yan Vasquez, Nina Wallimann, and Jiwon Yuk; Jiffpom by Benjamin Dohollow, Tiago Dos Santos Pinto, and Carla Ferey; Juniper and Friends by Zoé Mettraux, Luca Negro, and Norah Pittet; Nala Cat by Martin Annen, Nassim Baron, and Giona Leo Baumann; That Little Puff by Mireille Gidi, Hippolyte Giraud, and Ambre Gravina; Tucker Budzyn by Bryan Jefferson Reyes, Anna Smiian, and Kateryna Sushynska.


1 John Berger. “Why Look at Animals?” In About Looking (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 12.
2 Council of Europe, European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals (adopted November 13, 1987), ETS No. 125, Article 1: “Definitions,” [online]
3 Armêl Balogog, “Vrai ou faux: Les chiens et les chats sont-ils des ‘catastrophes’ pour la biodiversité et le climat?,” Radio France online, December 15, 2023, [online]
4 See: Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007); Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (London: Harvill Secker, 2014).
5 Jack Halberstam. “Zombie Antihumanism at the End of the World.” In Wild Things. The Disorder of Desire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 147-174.
6 Kathleen Walker-Meikle. Medieval Pets (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2012).
7 "Big Brother (franchise)," Wikipedia, last updated on March 27, 2024, 01:27 (UTC). [online]
* Edited by the author as per the explanations in the essay.
8 Although not officially communicated, information about the death of Jiffpom spread on mass media in 2022. See Leda Manos, “Is Jiffpom Dead? Investigating Rumours About the Beloved Pomeranian and Dog Influencer.” LA Weekly, November 29, 2022, [online]
9 “Here are the richest cats in the world in 2023,” The Economic Times online, August 10, 2023, [online]
10 Analysis conducted as part of the Theory of Mediated Spaces module (Prof. Javier Fernández Contreras, HEAD – Genève, spring semester 2024) by BA students in Interior Architecture.
11 Follower count as of April 2024.
12 Trisha Sengupta. “Meet Tucker Budzyn, Golden Retriever earning millions as influencer.” The Hindustan Times, May 24, 2023. [online]
13 See: Doug the Pug Foundation. [online]
14 @justice4lucas: 3665 followers and 142.4K likes on TikTok as of April 2024.
15 Susannah Cullinane, “Monkey Does Not Own Selfie Copyright, Appeals Court Rules,” CNN online, April 24, 2018, [online]
16 “Monkey Selfie Copyright Dispute,” Wikipedia, last updated on April 5, 2024, 02:09 (UTC), [online]
17 See: Bruno Latour. Politiques de la nature. Comment faire entrer les sciences en démocratie (Paris : La Découverte, 1999) ; Matthew Calarco. The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).
18 Alasdair Cochrane. Animal Rights Without Liberation: Applied Ethics and Human Obligations (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

24 May 2024
Reading time
18 minutes
Related Articles by topic Domesticity
Related Articles by topic Social media