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Four-legged Friends Connect Online at Dogster

Teenagers have online cliques at MySpace; students star in Facebook; LinkedIn is an Internet networking stage for professionals; and dogs and their human counterparts run with the pack at Dogster.

San Francisco-based Dogster is a flourishing social-networking website for canines, referred to as "animal companions" instead of "pets" in the politically correct City by the Bay.

Among the furry friends featured on the website is Annie, an 11-month-old female beagle from the US state of Tennessee. Annie loves carrots, belongs to a group called "Beagles R Us" and is humbly described as "nice with large ears." Her roster of friends includes Tank, a Shar Pei in South Africa; a New York City golden retriever named Copper, and Beanie, a poodle living in Malaysia. Annie has a blog, an online journal, to share her thoughts and adventures with friends. She is among more than 290,000 dogs worldwide with Internet personas portrayed in profile pages on Dogster.

Felines have a kindred website, Catster, which is purring along with more than 121,000 members. Dogster founder Ted Rheingold credits the birth of the pooch-oriented website in January of 2004 to a simple observation.

"I realized there was nowhere to make a webpage for your dog, or more importantly, there was nowhere to share photos and stories about your dog," Rheingold told AFP. "You could see photos online, but you couldn't see their names -- who's this dog, what's this dog's favorite treat, or what's this dog's character."

Dogster and Catster communities have grown to more than 500,000 members, and quickly extended beyond US borders. Countries with the most active members are Australia, Britain, Canada, the Philippines, Singapore and the United States. And a few other facts give a picture of its success.

In May alone, the company made more than 250,000 dollars (186,000 euros), had a healthy 22 million page views for both sites, and now h as 15 full-time and three part-time employees, according to a Dogster spokesman John Vars.

Labradors, Chihuahuas, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds are top dogs in Dogster demographics. Along with sharing a beloved creature with the world via the Internet, Dogster and Catster members share tips about pet care or animal behavior.

"If you have any questions about your dog changing with age, or getting another dog or cat, all these people are online at the same time so can give you advice," Rheingold said.

The websites grew from places for exchanging pictures and anecdotes to including features such as private message boards and lists of pets seeking homes in places around the world. Catster and Dogster members also use the websites to form breed-specific clubs in cities.

A recently added feature lets people find local pet services such as veterinarians, groomers, trainers, or dog walkers and learn how they are rated by peers. "If you do a search right now for a veterinarian you'll find names, addresses, how far they are from you, and read reviews of what other dogs' owners think of this vet or groomer," Rheingold said. While thriving on user-generated content in a way similar to other "Web 2.0" social-networking websites, Dogster and Catster are being built to outlast trends, according to their founder.

"We want to be here for a long time," Rheingold said. "Dogster is not just a business, and we don't want just to sell it or make a lot of money. We pick what's best for our users, what they want us to do, no matter if it's the latest sexy technology or not." Rheingold has also resisted entreaties from animal lovers to become an online version of a Biblical Noah, launching websites for species galore.

"Everyday, we get requests for horses, birds, fish, farm animals, lizards, or, 'Please, make this, because I want to show off my spider'," Rheingold said. "We don't have immediate plans to launch other pet sites, but we'd like to.

We really want to make sure we get Dogster and Catster right. It may not take long. But we'll probably stick to mainstream animals."


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