Ever since getting my first pet in Nebraska, back in 2001, I have belonged to online pet support groups. Initially, they served a source of information for pet care. They also encouraged me to try new products and activities. Over time, they’re also become a lifeline when dealing with illness and grief. In this article, I’ll share my experiences with groups for guinea pigs, cats, and dogs.
GUINEA PIG SUPPORT GROUPS
The first pet I got after moving to Lincoln was a guinea pig. Having been previously a dog owner only, I knew nothing about how to care for guinea pigs and immediately turned to guide books. However, there was also a wide variety of information that I never found in print. For example, guinea pigs websites provided me with complete lists of all the foods one should and should not feed to guinea pigs. They also showed me all kinds of ideas for multi-level cages. And they told me, in the most humorous way, how to know I were a “guinea pig slave”. As I started to dig into support groups, I also learned about the best brands of pellets and hay along with the best toys.
Support groups are also where, when I started being concerned about the health of my guinea pigs, I found a great lot of useful advice. For example, what does one do when your guinea pig loses all their back hair? Or what does one do when your guinea pig stops showing interest in food? Or how can one best help a guinea pig who loses her ability to use her back legs? To be honest, in hindsight, I could have probably better utilized the available support groups. When I got my first guinea pig, I spent most every week at one group or another. By the time of my second and third guinea pig, I visited only if a question arose. Consequently, I didn’t really have any place to turn to when my guinea pigs inevitably got sick.
Why didn’t I continue my regular use of support groups? I suspect that one reason for my declined use is that, well, there are a LOT of guinea pig sites. Right now, I have twelve bookmarked, and those are only the ones I viewed as the best in 2002. However, another reason is that support groups were a new idea for me. As a result, I viewed support groups solely as a source of information. If a cursory search in my books and through search engines didn’t turn up an answer, I’d eventually post to a guinea pig group but that was essentially it. Of course, this didn’t result in my building connections with other owners. Consequently, I never thought about turning to support groups through the highs and lows of being a “guinea pig slave”.
CAT SUPPORT GROUPS
The first pet I got during my three-year stint in Beatrice was a cat. Long story short, I was a reluctant cat owner. Lucy found my house. Lucy kept returning to my house. And Lucy accepted all the conditions of living with me, including having to accept dogs being around me. Once again, I turned to books and to websites for information. I also talked to my cat-loving friends. In my first several years of owning a stray cat, I never availed of a support group.
What made me start using a cat support group? The fall of 2013, Lucy was diagnosed with kidney disease. In searching for an understanding of what this meant and how I could best help her, I came across Tanya’s Comprehensive Guide to Feline Chronic Disease. During my sometimes daily visits to the vet, I often brought questions with me from this site. From the site, I also discovered Tanya’s CKD Support Forum. Here, I received immediate answers to questions such as what blood tests to get and values to expect, what foods to try and other possible treatments, and what signs were good or bad. I spent every day on this site, because of its focused nature.
Sadly, Lucy had other complications including heart murmur. She lost her battle on the morning of December 22. Hours later, I posted my news to the support forum. Almost immediately, I began to receive condolences. Some members even posted a candle in memory of Lucy. In the days and weeks ahead, Tanya’s CKD Loss Forum became my lifeline. Some days, there were posts of losses. Other days, there were posts about grief, guilt, and other woes. And finally sometimes there were those exciting posts of a new cat being added to the household. Members come and go, as the need arises, with some deciding to stay to “play it forward” with each new arrival. Like the main support group, I found a place in the loss forum, because it existed for a single purpose.
DOG SUPPORT GROUPS
The first foster that Andy and I got was a senior silky terrier. Although Gizmo came to us with health issues, I didn’t immediately turn to support groups. Gizmo’s main issue was Cushing Disease and we had plenty of information from his previous owner about how to manage it. For two years this even held true, although as Gizmo’s sight and hearing began to deteriorate, I did start turning to websites for information. I even did a cursory search of support groups. The difficulty was that Gizmo had multiple ailments. I wasn’t sure how any one group could sufficiently address his needs.
What made me ultimately turn to a dog support group? In January, Gizmo’s health began to decline, enough that I felt worried. I regularly searched for articles about pancreatisis, his newest ailment. Unfortunately, I discovered that many owners seemed to struggle with it no less than Andy and me. Finally, I started to post questions to the K9 Cushing Support Group. As with Tanya’s CKD Support Group, I received immediate answers to questions such as what blood tests to get and values to expect, what foods to try and other possible treatments, and what signs were good or bad. The longer I stayed, the more I also realized that other members had dogs with multiple ailments too. I was not alone.
Sadly, despite all of our jokes about Gizmo outliving everyone, the battle became too much for him. On May 23, in one of the most difficult decisions of our lives, Andy and I let him cross Rainbow Bridge. The next week, I posted my news to the K9 Cushing support group. Almost immediately, I began to receive condolences. I also had opportunity to extend virtual hugs to others who, on the same day as me, had also lost their precious pet.
Companion animals will always be part of my life. This means there will be lots of highs and lots of lows. I haven’t really connected yet with support groups for the highs, although now maybe will as Andy and I try to integrate a feral cat into our household. In contrast, I’ve certainly found support groups invaluable in dealing with the lows.
What are your experiences with pet support groups? Are there ones you prefer? What other sources do you use for handling the highs and lows of being a pet owner?