NEENAH, Wis. — As a cash-strapped university student in the late 1970s, Jim Boelke had an idea and applied for a patent — and today he owns a profitable factory with distribution from Japan and Hong Kong to Europe, South America and every state in the United States.

Boelke’s closest collaborators, however, were never venture capitalists, post-grad researchers or web developers. He owes much of his success to Jake and Elwood, two cats whose lives he saved when he was in college. The felines returned the favor by inspiring Boelke to invent one of the most popular toys in all of catdom: the Cat Dancer, a simple 3-foot length of bouncy steel wire, tipped at the ends with twisted stubs of cardboard ($2.99 at many pet stores).

Even the laziest cats are known to get airborne and do back flips when a human holds the wire by one end and lets the twists of cardboard at the other end bob tantalizingly like a fly or moth.

“It’s inexpensive and it works,” Cat Fancy magazine wrote in 1995, when it inducted the Cat Dancer into its Hall of Fame. “The most classic cat toy ever,” attested cat owner Alex Hinman as he waited to pick up his felines at a Milwaukee-area veterinary clinic.

In the process of shipping more than 12 million Cat Dancers — and nearly as many of the other cat toys he has invented over the years — Boelke became an authority on the vast market for products that indulge the nation’s most popular pet.

“Today’s pets are increasingly pampered,” from gourmet food to pet health clubs, pet salons, pet funeral homes and environmentally friendly cat litter, according to a report this year from Euromonitor International, which claims to collect “the world’s most comprehensive research” on pet product markets.

“As other nations get a middle class, families adopt cats,” Boelke said. “We just got a new distributor in Bogota,” adding to his roster of 14 other export markets, he said.

If Boelke’s business is any indication, the global cat economy is purring along. “Last year was our best year ever, and this year we are up 15 percent over that,” said Boelke, who declines to disclose revenue or other financial data from his privately held business.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 56 percent of cat owners consider their pets to be full family members, far higher than the 41 percent who relegate their felines to the category of mere “pets/companions.” Either way, the nation has a lot of house cats: 95.6 million, compared to 83.3 million dogs, which are the next most popular (not counting freshwater fish: 145 million), according to the American Pet Products Association.

Boelke never set out to be an entrepreneur, much less an inventor. His story began when he held multiple jobs to work his way through the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

One of those jobs was at an animal shelter that had too few cages, too few adoptions and far too many drop-offs.

“Most animals in the pound were euthanized,” he said. Finally, he couldn’t stand by any longer and impetuously rescued two cats, taking them to the house he rented with a handful of other students.

Another of his part-time jobs involved sweeping up scrap metal from a factory floor. One night he came across a discarded section of 20-gauge steel wire, which by chance had small strips of cardboard attached. “I picked it up. It was bouncy and flopped around,” he recalled.

That, he said, was his “moment of epiphany.”

He took the simple contraption home to test his idea. “My cats literally started doing back flips.”

And so began a routine during college parties, where Boelke entertained guests by saying, “Want to see my cats do back flips?”

Invariably, guests would ask if they could have one of those toys.

“The minute you bring it out, cats want to play with it,” Boelke said. “I made them in my living room for years, working with pliers and tin snips.”

That was until someone approached him with an order for 200. At that point, Boelke decided to incorporate Cat Dancer Products Inc. and filed for a patent that became U.S. No. D-295,798.

He continued to receive encouragement. One cat owner wrote him a letter to say he buried his cat with a Cat Dancer. In 1987, Purina Cat Chow created a “Celebrity Cats” calendar. July featured Max, a 4-year-old Scottish Fold belonging to fashion designer Calvin Klein. The blurb says the Cat Dancer is Max’s “favorite toy.”

Jake and Elwood, named for the Blues Brothers characters of “Saturday Night Live” fame, didn’t live to see Boelke’s business as it expanded. That’s when Boelke adopted Max, a portly 22-pound longhair Maine Coon, a breed known for its hunting skills.

Hunting is the key to cat psychology, which in turn is the reason Cat Dancer has succeeded, Boelke says. “My toys are designed to be a surrogate for prey and allow them to hone their hunting skills,” he said. “Cats need erratic motion in order to get their hunting instincts to kick in.”

Max was around for 19 years and collaborated on many of the follow-up toys, including the Cat Charmer, a strip of brightly colored fleece attached to the end of a plastic wand. The Cat Charmer, now with sales of 8 million, has begun to outsell the Cat Dancer.

Boelke said humans like the Cat Charmer because it has pretty colors. “The Cat Dancer looks unappealing to humans. But if cats had money, we’d sell a lot more Cat Dancers,” Boelke said.

In his 35-year career, Boelke has helped change the way people play with cats. In its Hall of Fame issue, Cat Fancy magazine hailed the Cat Dancer as a new breed of “interactive toy.”

“Before the Cat Dancer, all the toys for cats were balls, bells and fake mice,” Boelke said. “The cat played by itself.”

But the cat market has become a dog-eat-dog trade since the days of Jake and Elwood. Boelke said his toys are simple, adding that it’s easy to attach a fleece strip to a wand. “We have more imitators than Elvis,” Boelke said.

What helps Boelke most is his established brand, along with his trademarks.

Of the thousands of cat toys available on Amazon.com, two of Boelke’s products routinely appear in the Internet retailer’s top 10 bestselling cat toys: The Cat Charmer often commands the No. 1 spot; in recent weeks, the Cat Dancer has fluctuated between fourth and sixth.

Nowhere is feline fanaticism more evident than the Internet, where homemade videos of cats on treadmills, in cardboard boxes and doing indescribably cute gymnastic tricks attract millions of viewers. The chief scientist of Bitly Inc., an Internet company, last year estimated that 2 percent of all links transmitted on social media are for “some cute fuzzy animal.”

The Cat Dancer, no surprise, appears in its share of those videos, a fact that Boelke treats with immodesty: “I admit, we are at the heart of a huge amount of Internet traffic.”

Boelke’s factory in a rural part of Neenah is emblazoned with bright orange paw prints on the exterior, visible from the highway. His shipping cartons also have orange paws.

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The inventor is now 60 and says he has ideas for additional toys. But Max has come and gone, and so have Buddy, Spike and Otis. After living without a cat for the last two years, Boelke recently adopted a striped gray kitten named Cooper. “I’m thinking of getting him a brother.”

All the years in the cat trade have made Boelke an armchair expert in the psychology of cats — and their human companions.

“Most people have an excess capacity to love,” he said. “And having something that can soak up whatever you can put out is very therapeutic and beneficial to people.”