Italy's deputy PM Matteo Salvini and ex-leader Silvio Berlusconi, pictured last years, have both promoted their love of animals
Rome (AFP) - Italy's strongman deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini appears to be taking a leaf out of former leader Silvio Berlusconi's book by wooing voters with pet-friendly initiatives to shore up support ahead of possible elections.
The country's populist coalition may be heading full speed towards a crisis, according to Italian political watchers, who say far-right Salvini could force a vote as early as the end of this year.
And both Salvini and Berlusconi are betting on a ballot-winning trick: portraying themselves as saviours of four-legged friends.
Salvini's anti-immigration League has far outstripped its government partner, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), in popularity since they joined forces after a general election last year.
A poll this week showed the League would win 37 percent of votes if an election were held -- enough for Salvini to ditch M5S and govern in an alliance with parties on the right.
That could see the League join forces once more with its historic ally, Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.
Salvini's public love affair with pets began when he started posting photographs of cats sent to him by followers on his Facebook page last year.
But he stepped up his pet-friendly strategy this month -- as rumours of a government collapse intensified -- by launching an appeal for the adoption of 117 stray dogs abandoned in a migrant centre he had closed down.
He followed that with a visit this week to a centre for stray cats in Rome, posing with some of its 450 whiskered inhabitants.
- Dog's breakfast for Berlusconi -
However the 46-year-old has some way to go to catch up with Berlusconi, who boasts of sharing his Milan villa with a "happy family" of dogs, sheep, horses and other animals.
The three-time former prime minister, known around the world for his "bunga bunga" erotic dinner parties, adopted a stray dog from Sicily while on the campaign trail in 2013.
In the run-up to the last general election, he joined a pro-animal rights movement and promised free veterinary care for pets.
And in March, before this year's European Parliament election, the billionaire launched a new campaign to improve animal welfare.
"Nine of my dogs sleep in my room. They wake up with me, have breakfast with me," he said in an interview at the time.
Italian media reported their names as Peter, Trilli, Wendy, Harley, Rambo, Marilyn and Ginny.
The 82-year-old's most famous dog -- a white Maltese terrier named Dudu introduced to his life by his 34-year-old girlfriend -- has his own Facebook page, which sports photographs of Berlusconi hugging lambs.
Salvini's coalition partner and fellow deputy prime minister Luigi Di Miao, the head of M5S, has limited himself to a selfie this month with a police German Shepherd sniffer dog called Buk.
Should M5S -- which is lagging in the polls -- face the ballot box soon, that may turn out to be too little, too late.