Identifying Ophthalmic Cancer in Cattle

Identifying Ophthalmic Cancer in Cattle

Heritage Animal Health



Identifying Ophthalmic Cancer in Cattle

Eye problems can arise quickly in cattle and require immediate attention. The sooner a problem is diagnosed, the better the chances for a favorable outcome. Cancer of the eye or surrounding structures can be “cured” if recognized and treated early. If left untreated, tumors affecting the eye and surrounding tissues can metastasize: spread to other areas of the body. Once the lymph nodes under the jaw and neck region are affected with cancer cells, the cow will likely succumb to a shortened lifespan and eminent carcass condemnation.

Increased Predisposition to “Cancer Eye”
White faced cattle are more likely to contract eye cancer than other dark faced cattle, due to the lighter pink color of the skin. Without pigment, the skin can succumb to sun-damage that predisposes the tissues to cancer. White-faced cattle with goggle-eyes are less likely to be diagnosed with eye cancer than straight white-faced cattle due to the added protective pigment immediately surrounding the eyes. Some families of cattle have a genetic predisposition to contracting cancer eye, suggesting that culling can be implemented as a way to decrease the incidence in your herd.

Recognizing Cancer Masses
Cattle eyes should be evaluated any time cows are handled or run through a facility for vaccines, deworming, reproductive examination or relocation. Identifying potential eye cancer requires close inspection of the three most commonly affected areas.

  1.       Third eyelid: the flap of tissue that sweeps up from the inner corner of the eye
  2.       Limbus: circular rim of the eyeball where the white meets the color
  3.       Eye lid margin: the hairless rim of the lower eyelid closely associated with the surface of the eye

Irregularities that are fleshy, raised, reddened, or ulcerated are possible precursors for cancer. Some of the lesions appear as glistening plaques while others are mealy or wart-like. Regardless of the presentation, any type can be become metastatic. Keeping an eye on the areas most often affected with cancer can lead to early detection and prevention. Your veterinarian can examine any suspicious lesions and check the lymph nodes of the jaw and neck for possible involvement.

Surgical Removal
In the event that a potential cancer mass is diagnosed and the affected area has remained local and NOT spread to the regional lymph nodes, tumor removal can be implemented. The method used to remove the tumor is based on the severity, location and veterinarian preference. All of the procedures listed are performed by a licensed veterinarian with the cow standing under local anesthesia.

  1.       Removal of the third eyelid
  2.       Wedge resection of the eyelid
  3.       Removal of the eye
  4.       Cryosurgery: application of liquid nitrogen

Removing the threat of early cancer can significantly reduce the likelihood of the tumor spreading to the rest of the bod. A watchful eye can add years to a comfortable and productive life, preventing death and/or condemnation.


About the Author
Dr. Colleen Lewis is a 1996 graduate of Kansas State University, College of Veterinary Medicine. Her career has taken her to many places as a practice owner, consultant, embryologist, and mentor. She enjoys mixed animal practice, teaching, traveling, farming and high school sports with her husband, Andrew and their three boys.