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

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

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.”

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