An Ottawa veterinarian is sounding the alarm after treating a dog for leptospirosis at his clinic last week.

Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that causes vomiting, diarrhea and severe weight loss in animals. Without treatment it can lead to kidney failure and death. The disease can also be passed on to humans.

Dogs can catch the "zoonotic" disease when they drink water that's been contaminated with the urine of other animals, such as puddles in dog parks.

Dr. Ian Cameron knows the symptoms of leptospirosis first-hand. Seventeen years ago, when he was a student at the University of Guelph, he contracted the disease from the infected dogs he was treating.  

"It felt like my kidneys were on fire," recalled Cameron.  "It was extremely painful, I felt really nauseous for a long time."

Vet infected

It happened in the fall of 2000, as Cameron was beginning his last year of veterinarian school, when an outbreak of leptospirosis struck 247 dogs in the region, killing 15.

'It was a real eye opener for how severe and how rapidly the illness could not only affect dogs, but people too.' - Dr. Ian Cameron, veterinarian

The origin of the disease was traced to a popular dog park in Kitchener-Waterloo. Before the disease was officially diagnosed, Cameron had already handled a number of sick dogs without the protection of gloves.

"I had to go to the hospital and I was put on some aggressive antibiotics," said Cameron from his office at Westboro Animal Hospital.

"It was a real eye opener for how severe and how rapidly the illness could not only affect dogs, but people, too."

 Ian Cameron

Dr. Ian Cameron and Lily at the Westboro Animal Clinic. (Sandra Abma/CBC)

Dramatic rise in cases

According to the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, the number of cases of leptospirosis has risen dramatically in eastern Canada over the past 20 years. The association recommends animals be vaccinated against the most common strains of the disease. 

Cameron said the dog treated recently at his clinic was diagnosed and treated in time, and is now recuperating at home. 

He said rain and recent flooding in the Ottawa region created ideal conditions for the spread of leptospirosis.

"Any time you have flooding in any area you have the risk of lepto, because it's carried by raccoons and skunks and they'll urinate there, and when that happens it can be an easy transmission to dogs."

Cameron urges dog owners to monitor their pets for symptoms of lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea and frequent urination, and to alert city officials about areas where water is failing to drain properly.