Mike Groll, Associated Press
FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2009 file photo, a radio transmitter is inserted into a little brown bat in an abandoned mine in Rosendale, N.Y.  Officials are warning the public to stay away from potentially rabid bats, as well as vaccinate pets and livestock that may come into contact with the wild animals after a public health laboratory has reported eight positive cases so far this year.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah officials are warning the public to stay away from potentially rabid bats, as well as to vaccinate pets and livestock that may come into contact with the wild animals.

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food has confirmed eight cases of rabies in bats so far this year, though August and September are peak months for detecting the disease.

"People may not know if they've been exposed," said Chelsea Crawford, assistant state veterinarian. She said a person could have been bitten by a rabid bat and not know it because bats have such small teeth.

Potential exposure to the disease can also happen if a bat is found in a home or brought there by a cat or dog, which is fairly common, said Crawford.

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the most common way for people to get rabies in the U.S. is through contact with a bat.

At least one Utah resident recently found a bat in their home, and while it is unknown whether that specific bat tested positive for rabies, Crawford said all cases of potential exposure should be taken seriously.

"Rabies is a serious illness and it is almost always fatal once clinical symptoms are present," she said.

The Utah Public Health Laboratory receives hundreds of submissions every year, from residents, as well as members of the Department of Wildlife Resources and veterinarians who are called to handle the wild animals.

Crawford said about 15 to 25 bats test positive for rabies each year in Utah, but all contact with bats can present potential exposure to the disease. Wild carnivores, such as raccoons, skunks, foxes and coyotes are also considered to be at high risk for transmitting rabies.

Signs of rabies include aggression and unusual behavior, foaming at the mouth, no interest in food or water, staggering and paralysis. Wild animals, according to the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, may also act tame. Bats with rabies may be seen flying around during the daytime or resting on the ground, typically uncharacteristic behaviors for the species. Bats may also show no noticeable signs of disease at all.

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People who come into contact with or who are bitten by a bat should immediately wash any wound and, if possible, capture the bat for testing. Testing the animal is the only way to know whether the bite victim needs treatment for potential rabies exposure.

Treatment includes immediate vaccination with several follow-up vaccinations.

Crawford recommends pet owners keep their pets up to date on rabies vaccinations, as many aren't aware how prominent rabies still is.

"It's not an optional thing," she said. "(Rabies) is still out there and it needs to be taken seriously."