Enormous dog who was too obese to stand transformed by £18,000 life-saving diet

Meredith (right) meeting Bertha for the first time (Picture: PA Real Life)

A dog who so chronically obese she could not stand up has had her life saved after losing more than half her body weight.

Bertha weighed an enormous 4 stone 7lb when new owner Meredith Wille, 49, first set eyes on her. Her life was in danger, and the only answer was an emergency diet and fitness programme – normally costing £18,000. Meredith from Beaver County, near Pittsburgh in the US, said: ‘Bertha couldn’t stand, let alone walk, and was so unbelievably fat, you could barely see her head.

‘It was very sad to see. I’m pretty convinced she wouldn’t have survived another month or two without tackling her chronic obesity.’

Meredith first saw a picture of Bertha on Facebook, alongside a plea for someone with the right skills to help her, in November 2019.
Obese Bertha at home with Meredith. PA REAL LIFE COLLECT
Bertha weigh 4 stone 7lbs at her heaviest (Picture: PA Real Life)
The message explained the beagle pug cross – known as a puggle – had been rescued along with six other dogs from their former home by Animal Control. As the clinical director of the Steel City Canine Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine Clinic in Pittsburgh, who had previously worked as a veterinary technician, Meredith knew if anyone could save this poor dog, it was her.

‘When I saw this absolutely horrifying picture of the dog with the message alongside asking “hey, does anyone want a challenge?” I thought I could help her,’ she says.

Bertha, as she was named by the Animal Control workers who rescued her, was probably aged between eight and 10 years at the time – and a lot of work would be needed to save her. Meredith, who is single and lives alone with her six pet dogs, said: ‘I wrote to the vet at the shelter in Ohio where Bertha was being cared for and said this is what I do for a living.

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Bertha wearing eye protection for her laser treatment for pain management. PA REAL LIFE COLLECT
Vets discovered she had an under-active thyroid and a leg injury (Picture: PA Real Life)

‘I listed everything I could do for her, but the vet came back and said that’s kind of you, but we just don’t have the money for all that.

‘So I suggested they allow me to foster her.’

The vet agreed and they met in a Walmart car park in Ohio, a three-hour drive from Meredith’s home, for the handover.

‘The vet got Bertha out of the car and put her on the ground, which is when I realised the photo I had seen on Facebook did not come close to the horrible health she was in,’ says Meredith.

She took Bertha for blood tests and discovered the pooch had an under-active thyroid, which would have caused her to become obese.

She also had a snapped tendon in her left hind leg which would have made walking difficult and painful even without her excess weight.

And on top of all that, Bertha was borderline diabetic and in danger of developing both pancreatitis and liver failure.

‘It was a little worrisome hearing all her medical problems,’ says Meredith.

‘I thought, “well if I can get this dog to live for four to six months we might be at a good point”.

‘But I wasn’t certain she was going to survive. I was going to do my best.’

Bertha during her underwater treadmill training. PA REAL LIFE COLLECT
Bertha was too big to walk, so Meredith started her off on an underwater treadmill (Picture: PA Real Life)

With the vet agreeing Bertha could not undergo surgery to fix her leg until her weight was under control, Meredith devised a weight loss programme, supported by gentle exercise and thyroid medication.

‘My goal was that Bertha should lose between 4-5% of her total body weight each month – which meant it would take a year or so to drop half her body weight,’ she adds.

If she made it through the programme, Bertha would weigh a much healthier 2 stone 2lb – but an uphill battle lay ahead.

Bertha was too fat to walk, even having to be carried out of her bed and lifted into the backyard to go to the loo as she was too obese to move, so starting a fitness programme was going to be difficult for her.

Bertha during her fitness training using physio equipment for dogs. PA REAL LIFE COLLECT
Bertha during her fitness training using physio equipment for dogs (Picture: PA Real Life)

Meredith’s solution was to start her off on the clinic’s underwater treadmill – a set-up that sees the exercise machine placed underwater so the dog’s joints are supported by the water as it walks forwards.

‘Bertha could only walk for around two minutes at first and that was a big effort,’ says Meredith. ‘It was about three to four months before we got her up to 15 minutes – I was only adding thirty seconds to a minute at a time.’

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As Bertha’s fitness began to improve, she was also able to use a special swimming pool for dogs, belonging to one of Meredith’s friends, so she could swim around 18-22 metres a time.

Within four months, she had lost around 15-20lbs and as Bertha’s fat began to melt away, her character started to shine through.

‘For the first four months Bertha wasn’t much of anything,’ Meredith recalls. ‘She was like a lump on a log.

‘Then slowly, her personality started to emerge. She’s a very cheerful and naughty dog – she’s always getting into things – and she’s very attached to me.’

In June 2020, Bertha was finally slim enough to undergo surgery to fix her injured tendon in her ankle.

And Meredith said the operation was a game-changer.

Obese Bertha at Meredith's home. PA REAL LIFE COLLECT
Meredith says Bertha was like a ‘lump on a log’ before she lost the weight (Picture: PA Real Life)

‘She was completely transformed. She could play more, do more and walk for longer – it was pretty outstanding,’ she says.

But a month later, calamity struck.

To Meredith’s alarm, Bertha refused dinner and became listless and it turned out she had a serious gallbladder infection, meaning the organ needed to be urgently removed.

And while under the knife, the vet discovered she had a lump on her spleen so that was taken out too.

‘I was told she had a 50% chance of surviving all that surgery but she pulled through,” Meredith said.

Skinny Bertha after losing weight. PA REAL LIFE COLLECT
Now, Bertha is a healthy weight, and a much happier dog (Picture: PA Real Life)
Slimline Bertha with Rosanna, one of Meredith's dogs, on a treadmill. PA REAL LIFE COLLECT
Slimline Bertha with Rosanna, one of Meredith’s other dogs (Picture: PA Real Life)

Astonishingly, within days Bertha was well enough to return to her fitness programme and in October 2020, she reached her target weight.

Now, Bertha is a fit and healthy dog, even if she will never be naturally athletic.

In all, Meredith said, Bertha’s health and fitness training would have cost in the region of $25,000 (£18,000) – but she provided her part for free and was able to raise $10,000 (£7,000) through donations to pay for her medical bills and healthy food, which costs around $150 (£110) a month.

Meredith says: ‘She’s never going to be super-active but the transformation in her has been amazing to see. Bertha is a wonderful dog.’

Plenty of other people agree – Bertha now has more than 7,700 fans on her own Instagram page, @bertha_gets_bitty, which has tracked her battle to fitness and also showcases how Meredith helps dogs at her clinic.

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And best of all, Bertha now has a forever home – after Meredith, who had only intended to foster her in the beginning, formally adopted her in December 2020.

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