Raising virtual cats is a burgeoning part of China's growing pet industry that heavily focuses on China's "empty nest youth" — or unmarried people living alone in China's major cities, China Youth Daily reported.
The online phenomenon, also known as "cloud cats," began with cat owners sharing photos and videos of their pets on social media only to amass huge followings.
Sina Weibo account "huiyizhuanyongxiaomajia," which posts videos and photos of a small British shorthair, has more than 30 million followers.
Most fans identify as "cat sniffers" — or people who obsessively check in multiple times a day on social media cats they have come to see as their own.
"As a veteran cat sniffer, if I don't get my daily fix I feel absolutely terrible. I probably have a serious addiction," writes one cloud cat "owner" on Zhihu, China's version of Quora.
Cloud cat popularity has since spilled over into cat sim apps and video games. One such app has reported $7.9 million in virtual cats sales, according to official data.
Empty nest youth make up a large portion of these users, industry data shows.
Working in China's major cities far from family, many find companionship in pets, both virtual and real.
According to a 2016 pet industry white paper, around 73 percent of the surveyed 6 million owners of pet owners are between 18 and 39 years old. More than 70 percent of them are women.
This contrasts with other nations, such as Japan, where the majority of cat owners are elderly.
Single person households are also on the rise in China. According to a 2015 census, they made up 12.45 percent of the population, up from 8.3 percent from 2000, reported Xinhua News Agency.
There are currently 20 million people living alone between the ages of 20 and 39, reported Xinhua.
This story was originally published in the Global Times.