PHOENIX - There's an increase in the number of rabies cases in Maricopa County and health officials say they can't explain why that is.

"We do not have a good explanation of why we are seeing more rabid animals than usual this year," said Craig Levy, epizoologist for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.

"The best thing for residents to do is to make sure their animals are vaccinated against rabies and to be sure not to handle animals such as bats that could be carrying the virus."

The most important thing for pet owners to do: make sure their dogs and cats are up to date on their rabies vaccination.

The Department of Public Health says seven cases of animal rabies have been reported so far this year, compared with five confirmed cases last year. This year's cases include five bats, one bobcat and one fox. Three bats tested positive just in the past few weeks, the department said in a release.

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The department says four people this year had to receive preventative rabies shots after being exposed to lab-confirmed rabid animals and that other people were treated as a precaution after being bitten or exposed to wild animals not available for testing.

Levy also advises against handling bats and other animals that could be carrying the virus.

"Our concern is that the worst months may still be ahead." Levy added.

Late summer is a time when more people and pets come into contact with bats because of migratory patterns, according to public health officials.

If you find a bat on the ground, officials say you should not touch it. Instead, cover it with a box to contain it and report the bat's location to the health department.

If a person or pet has made contact with the bat, it will have to be tested for rabies, health department officials say.

Other tips for avoiding rabies exposure:

• Don't pick up, touch, or feed wild or unfamiliar animals, especially sick or wounded ones.

• If someone has been bitten or scratched, or has had contact with the animal, report it immediately to animal control or health officials.

• Do not "rescue" seemingly abandoned young wild animals. Usually, the mother will return. If the mother is dead or has not returned in many hours, call the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

• Spay or neuter your pets to help reduce the number of unwanted pets that may not be properly cared for or vaccinated regularly.

• Vaccinate all dogs and cats against rabies. Pets should be kept on a leash or in a fenced yard.

• Take precautions when camping, hunting or fishing. Avoid sleeping on the open ground without the protection of a closed tent or camper. Keep pets on a leash and do not allow them to wander.

• Do not disturb roosting bats. They will usually leave after nightfall.

To report a suspected rabies case or to receive a rabies assessment call the Maricopa County Department of Public Health at 602-747-7500 (24 hours a day).

The Associated Press contributed to this report.