At first glance Hugo and Huxley may look like thousands of other golden retrievers but these “pet influencers” make their owner, Ursula Aitchison, more than £100,000 a year in modelling, advertising and sponsorship deals.
Hugo, nine next month, and Huxley, three, are part of a booming trend for pet models, with advertising agencies capitalising on the internet’s love of anything animal-related to promote everything from wellies to ferries.
As well as products for humans, many “pet influencers” showcase designer dog attire and accessories including collars, jackets and harnesses from high fashion brands such as Moncler, Prada and Anya Hindmarch. These luxury items, which can easily run to hundreds of pounds, sit at the top end of a global pet clothing market valued at more than $5.7bn (£4.6bn) a year, according to the research firm SkyQuest.
Aitchison says she fell into the career of “mother agent”, manager and casting director for her dogs accidentally, during a previous venture as a pet photographer. “I was working photographing people and their dogs, and I used him [Huxley] as a muse and practised with him,” she says. “Compared to the dogs I was photographing, he was really good at staying still and taking direction, so I put him forward to an agency.”
Hugo immediately found work and has featured in adverts for a range of brands and products including Hunter wellies, New Look, Dyson vacuum cleaners, Tesco and P&O Ferries. To start, with Aitchison didn’t charge too much for her and Hugo’s time but now he is well known and a “super dog” in the pet influencer industry he can command £750 a day. Adverts put out to the more than 300,000 followers on their shared Instagram page – @HugoAndUrsula – cost £3,000 to £5,000.
“It is my full-time job now, especially as I have Hugo and Huxley,” Aitchison, 34, from the Cotswolds, says. “I spend my days driving the boys to photoshoots, creating events and curating content for Instagram posts.”
Aitchison estimates she makes at least £100,000 a year from her dogs’ modelling work. “Actually,” she adds. “It’s probably coming up to £150,000 if you include all the freebies and gifted stuff, including clothes and expensive hotel stays.”
A lot of Aitchison, Hugo and Huxley’s work is provided by their agency, Urban Paws, established in 2015 to cater for the growing demand for professional dog models. Layla Flaherty, the agency’s founder, chief executive and “pet detective”, says demand for pet models has increased every year and the agency has expanded from dogs to cats, rabbits, birds, horses, reptiles, tortoises, and even reindeer and spiders.
“There’s an ever-increasing demand for animals in adverts, on TV and for promoting products on social media, which is seeing a huge boom in pet influencers,” Flaherty says. “This year we are expecting a jump in rabbit bookings as it is the Chinese year of the rabbit.”
Dogs, however, are where the money is for Flaherty, particularly on Instagram and TikTok. “Pet Influencers use their socials to promote businesses or services and create content with product placement to drive people to buy the product or just create general brand awareness,” she says.
Hugo and Huxley, who were among her first model signings, have “a life I could only dream of. They are constantly walking the red carpet at events, get gifted free food, clothing, everything really.”
Flaherty’s advice for anyone considering turning their dog into a social media star is to “commit to it from the beginning”, “know your audience” and “stay on top of viral trends”.
That was how another of her models – Good Boy Ollie – became a social media star, she says. “His owner made videos of him balancing all sorts of everyday objects on his rear end and it really took off online.” The labrador now has 1.2m followers on Instagram and 5.8m on TikTok, making him one of the most popular pet influencers on the planet.
As with many online trends, pet influencing started in the US, where the first breakout star was Grumpy Cat, real name Tardar Sauce, whose distinctive underbite inspired a 1,000 memes, not to mention a range of merchandise, books and even her own film. Even after her death in 2019, her Instagram account still has 2.6m followers, not far off that of today’s pet stars such as Tucker the “goofy golden retriever” who has 3.3m.
Ollie’s owner Alex, 23, says she also accidentally fell into becoming a pet influencer manager. “I uploaded two videos on TikTok two years ago and it went viral overnight,” she says. “I didn’t expect them to be that popular.” One of the clips showed Ollie in a cute bow tie, and the other was him watching his favourite TV show, Phineas and Ferb.
“He is my first dog, and I was only a teenager when I got him,” says Alex, who asked that her surname not be published because of concerns about Ollie’s security. “My own [social media] pages were getting spammed with dog content, so I thought why not create his own account.”
Alex says running Ollie’s accounts is her full-time job but declined to reveal how much money she makes.
Asked why she chose the name Good Boy Ollie, she replies: “Well, it’s quite simple really: he’s called Ollie and he’s a very good boy.”