Colonel Meow

Animals with their own fan clubs aren't anything new. In the years before the Internet, animals sometimes became famous for a role in a TV show or a movie. But more often than not, it was the character who was famous rather than the animal himself. Everyone knows Lassie, for example, but only true fans know that he was first played by a dog named Pal.

These days, though, that's far from the case. It seems like every time we log in to Facebook or Instagram or YouTube, a new Maru or Mishka is stealing our hearts (and our page views), but these animals aren't actors with handlers and a PR firm ready to frame their everyday activities in a rosy light. No, these are simply people's pets who happened to go viral.

Enthusiastic Instagrammers and bloggers create and maintain their pets' online image by consistently delivering adorable photos, witty captions and funny videos featuring the furry star. But social media popularity can come at a price: When an Internet-famous pet becomes ill or dies, the human behind the image has a responsibility to break the bad news to fans and followers.

Holding Back Before Moving Forward

Each pet owner deals with loss in a different way, whether that pet is famous or anonymous. When Colonel Meow — known to his fans as "the world's angriest cat" — passed away in January at just 3 years of age, his owner, Anne Marie Avey, initially provided his followers (or Minions, as they are affectionately known) with only the most basic information about his death: "Colonel Meow passed away yesterday evening," Avey wrote on Meow's official Facebook page. "I will post more about the details when I've had a few days to grieve. Thank you so much for your understanding, Minions."

Nearly a month later, Avey spoke openly and emotionally in a Google Plus Hangout about the cat's passing, describing his struggles with a genetic heart condition, his fight against kidney failure and his subsequent death due to cardiac arrest. In the Hangout video, now accessible on YouTube, she credits Meow's fans with helping her get through the grieving process. She was able to get back to normal life in part, she says, because "I saw how much you guys were hurt as well. You felt my pain. You knew what I was going through. … All the love and support, I saw all of it. All of the messages, I read all of them."

Avey plans to continue sharing images of Colonel Meow, but she is quick to point out that it's coming out of a good place, not because she's "wallowing in her own tears or pity."

"He brought so much love and joy to me, and I have so many pictures that I still want to share," she told fans in the Google Plus Hangout. "I still look at a picture and I laugh. Those eyes, that attitude, it's hilarious to me." She clarified, however, that she would no longer be posting in Colonel Meow's voice.

The angry-looking cat will live on in another way as well: Avey will donate money from the GoFundMe account she started when Meow was hospitalized to Cats in Crisis to help other cats with problems like Meow's.

bunnymama Rambo Hipster Bunny

Sharing It All From the Beginning

Sometimes owners of Internet-famous pets don't have time to plan for their animals' demise. Rambo, one-half of Instagram user BunnyMama's floppy-eared rabbit duo, passed away in December after suffering several strokes over the course of about two and a half weeks. His owner, who wishes to keep her real identity anonymous, was up-front with her Instagram followers about Rambo's issues and her own sorrow from almost the very beginning. Two days after the first stroke, she posted this picture, stating that Rambo had had a stroke and had lost the use of his legs and that they would take him to the vet and hope for the best.

"I treat our followers like they are a part of our family. Our account is very intimate. It is a glimpse into my home, my life with my bunnies and the love I have for them," BunnyMama told us.

Rambo's declining health came as a shock, but despite the fact that she had not previously considered how she'd handle the situation publicly, BunnyMama feels she made the right call in sharing the details of his illness and death with her followers, even though some left comments questioning her choices or telling her she should put Rambo to sleep. "It was difficult posting photos of Rambo when he was ill, but I feel like our followers are extended family."

"Rambo’s passing was not something I had planned for," she says, but "it really opened my eyes as to how special Rambo was, even to complete strangers." While not every comment was positive, she was able to ignore the hurtful responses and focus on the positive. "The love and support people showed was amazing and very comforting."

Eddy, the second bunny in the original duo, is still very present in BunnyMama's Instagram feed. Since Rambo's death, BunnyMama has also begun fostering two new bunnies, Marbles and Olive. She posts occasional photos of Rambo, but more often than not she features Eddy, Marbles and Olive. She also continues to promote her message of proper care for bunnies and support of rabbit rescue.

Grouchy Puppy image

Making Plans Ahead of Time

Not all owners of famous pets are caught off guard by their animals' health issues. Sharon Castellanos, the human behind the popular blog Grouchy Puppy, which features her senior dog, Cleo, had planned to disclose information about Cleo's health from the very beginning of the site, which launched in 2010.

"I’ve written about every major health issue Cleo and I have experienced together," Castellanos says. "Diabetes, allergies, blindness, major tooth extractions, seizures and various old-age topics. Grouchy Puppy is meant to be a place where people share, but always in a productive way. I want readers to be able to take away something useful from every post, from a genuine heartfelt reaction to a list of important websites."

When the time comes to say goodbye to Cleo, Castellanos plans to stay true to her current practice. "I will certainly share the moment as best that I can, as well as whatever happens afterwards that might be helpful to others." Although it may be therapeutic for her to write about her grief, that's not her main goal. "I always try to write thoughtfully about my personal reactions, emotional conflicts and existential questions, while being educational. I’ve already written about anticipatory grief with links to local and national resources for readers."

And just like Anne Marie Avey and BunnyMama, Castellanos doesn't plan to shutter the site once Cleo is gone. "I would love for Grouchy Puppy to continue on being known for highlighting the human-animal bond, whether in personal stories, community events, new research, you name it!" she says. "Cleo will always be remembered as our muse; you only have to look at the logo."

How Fans Help (or Hurt) the Grieving Process

While the support and love of a fan base or online community can clearly be helpful in times of crisis, there will inevitably be commenters with unkind words to say.

Donna Shugart-Bethune is director of public relations at Deceased Pet Care Funeral Homes & Crematories in Atlanta. Her company provides pet-loss support groups once a month as well as pet-loss seminars for veterinary professionals, so she's well-versed in the stages of grieving and the variety of reactions.

"[An Internet-famous pet's death] is a teachable opportunity," Shugart-Bethune explains. "It's a wonderful opportunity to go through the process together and move toward healing."

However, whether a pet is Internet-famous or just a star in his own home, Shugart-Bethune has suggestions for handling the grief.

"Something as simple as writing a memory can help, or you might involve the whole family in creating a keepsake box of toys and collars," she says. "The other part that's important is that you connect with other people who understand and recognize your loss."

And if you run into people, either through your social media channels or in real life, who say things like "Why are you so sad? It was just a dog," Shugart-Bethune recommends ignoring it. "Don't engage, and don't acknowledge that comment," she says. That way, you stay in control and maintain a positive, supportive tone — whether it be online or in a face-to-face interaction.

Have you ever considered how you'd handle sad news about your pets on a public platform? Perhaps looking at the way these owners of Internet-famous pets have allowed their communities to help them grieve — and utilized their pets' fame for good causes — will inspire you.

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