Health and Science

Grief-stricken pet owners usher in Instagram and TikTok's new influencers: Their cloned cats and dogs

Key Points
  • The Texas-based ViaGen famously cloned Barbara Streisand's dog, Sammie, in 2018, which resulted in two exact copies of her cherished pet, Miss Violet and Miss Scarlet.
  • The cloning process starts with a small skin sample that can be taken from the animal when it's alive and then stored to use later or within five days after a pet dies.  
  • Surrogates typically have one or two litters before they are spayed and adopted to a home after their puppies or kittens are weaned, the company said.
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Cloned cats and dogs are the newest influencers on Instagram and TikTok

Grief-stricken pet owners who can't bear to say goodbye to their four-legged friends are driving the latest crop of influencers on social media: cloned cats and dogs.

Kelly Anderson said she was devastated when her 5-year-old cat, Chai, unexpectedly died in 2017.

"I've never really even had a relationship with a human like I did with her," the 32-year-old Austin-based dog trainer said. "I was very distraught the day she died." 

Kelly Anderson said her first cat, Chai, died suddenly after complications from surgery.
Kelly Anderson

The white and tan ragdoll had 85,000 followers on Anderson's Instagram account @adogandacat when she died from complications following a surgery.

"I lost about 20,000 followers on Instagram after Chai passed," she explained.

Anderson said she sent a sample of Chai's DNA to the Texas-based pet cloning company ViaGen Pets shortly after she died. It took four years and $25,000 for Anderson to get a successful clone, and now she's back in business with Chai's identical genetic clone named Belle, who was born in 2021. 

Belle is a genetic replica of Anderson's cloned cat, Chai.
Kelly Anderson

Pictures of Belle now fill Chai's former Instagram feed, along with photos of Anderson's husky, Ghost. Anderson, who documented the cloned kitty's journey on Instagram, said it wasn't sponsored by ViaGen. As of this article's publishing date the account has nearly 65,000 followers.   

"Some people might buy a car, I bought a clone," Anderson said. "To me, yeah, it was worth it. I think that she was the most important part of my life." 

When Anderson said she contacted ViaGen in 2017, the price to clone a cat was $25,000. Today, the company charges $35,000 for cats and $50,000 for a dog. 

"People have problems with how much money it is," Anderson explained. "But at the end of the day, it's my money, and no one really should be telling other people how to spend their own money."

Sammie

The Texas-based ViaGen famously cloned Barbara Streisand's dog, Sammie, in 2018, which resulted in two exact copies of her cherished pet, Miss Violet and Miss Scarlet.

"So what a cloned animal is, is it's just essentially an identical twin of the original pet," explained Melain Rodriguez, ViaGen's client service manager.  

Rodriguez said the cloning process starts with a small skin sample that can be taken from the animal when it's alive and then stored to use later or within five days after a pet dies.  

"That tissue sample comes back into our lab that you see here, and we grow millions of cells from that skin sample," said Rodriguez.

The lab inside ViaGen Pets in Cedar Park, Texas.
ViaGen Pets

From there, ViaGen takes an egg from a donor animal and fuses it together with the cells it has grown and an embryo starts to grow.

Surrogates

"Then those embryos are put into a surrogate animal who will gestate, give birth, nurse and take care of that puppy or kitten until it's weaned," Rodriguez explained.

The surrogates typically have one or two litters before they are spayed and adopted, at the client's request, to a home after their puppies or kittens are weaned, the company said. Most litters are small, producing one or two offspring.

But sometimes the process results in multiple clones from a single litter.  

That's exactly what happened when 29-year-old photographer and pet enthusiasts influencer Courtney Udvar-Hazy cloned her wolf-dog, Willow, who died in 2018. Unexpectedly, the cloning process gave life to her new dog Phoenix and five more genetically identical copies in 2019. 

When ViaGen told Udvar-Hazy there were six genetically identical clones of her dog, Willow, she said she was "blown away."
Courtney Udvar-Hazy

Udvar-Hazy turned to cloning after her 2-year-old dog, known as @Wander_With_Willow on Instagram, escaped from a pet sitter and was tragically hit by a car while she was visiting family for Thanksgiving. 

"She was like my child, my everything," Udvar-Hazy recalled. "So I was in a position where I just would have done anything just to have her legacy continue."

Courtney Udvar-Hazy said she was devastated when she lost her dog, Willow.
Courtney Udvar-Hazy

She said her father told her about cloning and they decided to send a skin sample from Willow to ViaGen.

Wolf-dog pack of clones

Udvar-Hazy said she was "blown away" when she received the call from ViaGen that Phoenix and a small pack of clones had arrived. Remembering the day she picked up her puppies from ViaGen, she said, "I couldn't believe that was real, all of the girls were coming out of the car." 

She decided to give Willow's five genetic copies to several of her closest friends. The clone owners now often get "the girls" together for play dates and photo shoots, which Udvar-Hazy shares on Instagram and TikTok. ViaGen offers multiple clones to their clients or helps them adopt them out if the client doesn't take them, the company said.

The company said it euthanizes clones only if they're born with a health issue that's life threatening.

Udvar-Hazy's "Wander with Willow" accounts are now filled with images of Willow's clone, Phoenix. To anyone but Udvar-Hazy, the two look identical. 

Courtney Udvar-Hazy with her dog Willow as a puppy on the left and her clone Phoenix as a puppy on the right.
Courtney Udvar-Hazy

And while Willow never reached influencer status on Instagram, her clone's second life online has taken off.

"On TikTok, that's what really blew up," she said. "I started that only a few months ago, and we're at 1 million followers already." 

Courtney Udvar-Hazy with Phoenix, a genetic replica of her dog, Willow.
Courtney Udvar-Hazy

While both Udvar-Hazy and Anderson say they paid full price for their clones and neither posts sponsored content about cloning, ViaGen does seek out pet influencer partners, and that's where Instafamous influencer Tinkerbelle the Dog comes in. 

Tinkerbelle is a 5-pound papillon, Maltese mix that has more than 800,000 followers on social media. The tiny star is a verified celebrity on Instagram, TikTok and Facebook with the check mark to prove it.

Photos of Tinkerbelle modeling, acting, and traveling have attracted more than half-a-million followers on Instagram.
Sam Carrell

Sam Carrell, who owns a dance school for children, rescued Tinkerbelle from a shelter in 2012, and the pint-size pup's acting and modeling career began when she was discovered by an animal talent agent on the streets of New York City. 

About a year later, Carrell said, Tinkerbelle booked her first campaign for Ralph Lauren, and she's since been in the theater, booked national commercials and even walked in Fashion Week.

Behind the scenes of Tinkerbelle's photo shoot for Ralph Lauren.
Sam Carrell

Carrell said managing Tinkerbelle's career is now her full-time job. 

"I never dreamed of ever having a dog, first of all, and could not have imagined that she became this celebrity overnight," said Carrell. "I am managing her daily agenda, and shoots, and this and that." 

After being approached by ViaGen for a partnership in 2018, Carrell said she saved her famous pooch's DNA and posted the decision to her more than 500,000 followers on Instagram. Preserving Tinkerbelle's DNA gives her the option to duplicate the aging pup, who is now 10 years old, or 60 in dog years. ViaGen typically charges $1,600 to preserve a pet's DNA and an annual storage fee of $150 per year. Carrell said she cannot disclose any details about the partnership. 

"I don't know what I'm going to do, but definitely her celebrity status plays a key in everything — in every decision I make in life," Carrell explained. 

The Humane Society of the United States doesn't recommend cloning your pet, CEO Kitty Block said, noting the millions of animals that need good homes.

Losing a pet, while tragic, could be seen as an opportunity to meet a new animal with their own quirks and personality, she said.

"I can certainly understand why someone would want to clone their animal," said Block. "We have our time with our animals that we love, but to artificially try to extend it doesn't help that next animal." 

While clones are genetic copies, they do not always appear exactly the same. In some cloned animals there are small variations in fur such as coloring or spots.

And if you're wondering if a dog or cat's personality and temperament carries over to its clone, that part is less clear.

Udvar-Hazy said her dog Willow used to throw toys up in the air and try to catch them, which is something Phoenix also does instinctively.

"Phoenix started doing that as a puppy, so that's what I would say is the biggest characteristic that she does that Willow did uniquely," Udvar-Hazy said. 

Manika Ward, a 29-year-old singer, songwriter and TV host, cloned her 14-year-old childhood dog, a Maltese named Angel, who died of natural causes in July 2017. Her genetic replica, Gel-E, who was born that November and delivered to her Las Vegas home the following January, looks identical and has similar qualities, Ward said.

Manika Ward with her first dog, Angel.
Manika Ward

"Personality wise, there's a lot of things that are very similar including little random quirks that she does," Ward explained. "When she jumps up on her hind legs for attention, how she does it, it's hard to describe but she alternates her back legs opposite of how she alternates her front legs. Only Angel did that."

Plus, Ward believes it's possible that one of her cats, who knew Angel before she passed away, may also sense a connection to her clone.   

Gel-E is a genetic replica of Ward's first dog, Angel.
Manika Ward

"Something that's really cool is the first day I got Gel-E, one of my cats, Cosmo, who knew Angel and they were friends, the very first night they were sleeping together on the couch," Ward said. "It was so cool how they bonded immediately." 

Beyond looks and little quirks, Ward says holding Gel-E in her arms makes it feel like part of Angel is still with her.

"I feel like how they say, when you love someone they're never really gone, they live on," Ward said. "It's extra strong because literally a piece of Angel lives on right here, she's living and breathing."