Several years ago, a couple from Twitter contacted Star Ritchey with a request: They wanted permission to put her name in their will. Ritchey had never met the couple before, but they wanted her to inherit their dogs.
“They don’t have kids, but they have bulldogs, and they reached out and said, ‘If something happens to us, we don’t know what would happen to them,’” Ritchey told me. “They said they knew that even if I couldn’t keep them, I’d get them to a good rescue.” The couple had decided Ritchey was right for the job because of her favorite hobby, which is posting about her own beloved bulldogs—the Frenchies Emmy and Luna—on Twitter.
After Ritchey started her Twitter account in 2013 as a fun way to occasionally tell the world how much she loved her previous dog, the English bulldog Georgia, she quickly got pulled into a realm of social media she didn’t know existed: bulldog Twitter. There people bond over their shared devotion to their dogs, share pictures and stories, and often meet in real life. Posting from her dog’s account quickly became a normal part of Ritchey’s day.
Then, in 2016, her relationship to that social-media circle evolved from simple fun to something deeper: Georgia was diagnosed with cancer. Ritchey had to navigate new emotional terrain with people who normally wouldn’t be involved.
Posting enough about your pet that strangers become emotionally invested in them might seem a bit absurd, but as the barrier between online and offline life vanishes, it’s only natural that more elements of people’s emotional lives begin to migrate to digital spaces. Even for those who don’t maintain accounts specifically dedicated to their pets, a world in which our lives are more public and interconnected than ever presents a challenge. What should you share as your pet’s health inevitably starts to deteriorate, and what happens when you tell thousands of people that something you love is dying?
The best-known version of digital pet cosplay happens on Instagram, where the visual nature of the platform helps some particularly cute and well-photographed pups rise to fame beyond their roles as adored family pets. Dorie Herman is the steward of one such clan of pups, the Kardoggians. She started out with Chloe, who passed away last year, and now she has Cupid and Kimchi—three senior rescue Chihuahuas with a following of 161,000 people.
When you have an older dog, medical problems come with the territory, but that doesn’t make them any easier to share. “When something’s wrong with [your pet], it forces you to say it out loud, which makes it a little too real sometimes,” says Herman. In addition to the well-being of her pets, she worries about how their health affects the strangers who are emotionally invested in them. “If I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t want to worry them, or for people to feel like I’m manipulating their emotions,” Herman says. She’s careful to wait until she has concrete information from her veterinarian before saying anything publicly.
Once Herman began to post about Chloe’s medical problems, people on Instagram who loved her dogs gave her an incredible amount of comfort. “I’ve never felt more surrounded by love and care,” she says. Although it’s been months since Chloe’s death, fans are still grieving with Herman. “People reach out and ask me how I am, and tell me they were looking at pictures of her and missing her,” she says, which makes her own grief less isolating. “I can talk about my dog to so many people who actually know who she was and loved her the way I loved her.”
Hilary Sloan, the dog mom to the Bean family of Instagram-famous rescue pups (and a former co-worker of mine), sees her dogs’ health problems as a way to educate her six-figure following about their own pets’ health. “I have a lot of access, and that’s the privilege of my platform,” she says. “I wouldn’t hoard that knowledge—that’s not who I am as a person. I love dogs.”
She and her husband recently lost Louis, an elderly Cavalier King Charles spaniel who rarely appeared on her account (he didn’t like dressing up, Sloan says). The couple experienced the same outpouring of support Herman did when Chloe died. Now the family is treating 11-year-old Ella Bean for thyroid problems and adding frequent posts about pet health, including videos from vet checkups and live Q&As about things such as doggie CBD and acupuncture. “I chose to share Ella’s condition because maybe someone else will notice their dog changed,” Sloan says. “Maybe they’ll do what I did and get blood work right away instead of waiting.” (Ella is doing great, if you’re worried.)
But you don’t have to own a bona fide furry influencer for the internet to rush to your aid in pet tragedy. When Georgia was sick, Ritchey, the bulldog owner, decided to share what her family was going through with her friends on Bulldog Twitter—her dogs have a few thousand followers—and she was overwhelmed by the depth of support she received. “Even my husband, who doesn’t do their social-media stuff, would sit for hours and read through these messages,” she says. The outpouring wasn’t limited to tweets. “We had more flowers sent to our house than you could imagine. People were going to Mass, doing things for her at their church,” says Ritchey.
Lisa Lippman, the lead veterinarian for Fuzzy Pet Health in New York City, thinks sharing an aging pet’s health struggles online is a good impulse that can help viewers be vigilant about their own pets’ health. Seeing someone, whether a friend or influencer, guide a pet through medical treatment on social media can make it easier for people to identify problems in their own animals. “A lot of people start to say, ‘Oh, they’re slowing down,’ or ‘[They] aren’t their old selves,’” she says. “Often we can attribute those things: It’s not old age; it’s arthritis or some other ailment that we can treat, if we know about it and if people visit their vets.”
No one wants to contend with a loved one’s mortality or give people bad news, but in a community built around short life spans, the promise of eventual grief is the price of entry for loving an animal, even if it’s not your own. “We have cried over so many dogs we’ve never met in the past five or six years,” says Ritchey. Maybe in that shared experience of decline and loss, people find it a little easier to lean on one another. Georgia may have passed away, says Ritchey, but she lives on in the friends Ritchey made because of her, such as the couple who included her in their will: “She was just a little bulldog who was our world, but somehow she meant a lot to everyone else, too.”