Veterinary Handbook Disease Finder

Eye Cancer


Cattle are the main species of interest.

Other Names

  • Cancer Eye
  • Eye Neoplasia
  • Eye Tumour
  • Ocular Squamous Cell Carcinoma



This is a malignant growth on the surface of the eyeball, eyelid or third eyelid. It mainly affects Hereford and Friesian breeds in areas with prolonged exposure to sunlight.

Cattle at greater risk are older (>3 years), have protruding eyes, unpigmented eyeballs or lids, and are resident in higher latitudes (more sunlight hours), or areas with long dry seasons. Cancer eye is rare in the export process because cattle are generally young.

Clinical Signs and Diagnosis

Lesions always start on unpigmented areas of the eyeball or eyelids. Early lesions appear as discrete raised whitish areas on the third eyelid or corneoscleral junctions of the eye, or dark, crusty wart-like lesions on the margins of upper and lower eyelids. If they progress, lesions will grow, ulcerate, bleed, become friable and may smell foul from necrosis or infection. Without intervention, there can be progressive invasion of the eye and face, lymph nodes of the head and neck, and eventual spread to distant organs such as the liver and lungs. Affected animals will ultimately die from this condition if untreated.

Early lesions are easily missed because cattle tend to face observers side-on displaying the best functioning eye. Eye lesions in Herefords and Friesians should always be subject to close examination. Differential diagnoses include warts, foreign bodies and pinkeye.


Options for treatment include surgical removal of lesions or the entire eye, possibly associated with cryotherapy (freezing) and irradiation. Choice of treatment will be influenced by extent of the lesion(s), time available for recovery, skill, resources and stage of the export process. Early stage lesions are more amenable to treatment. Larger and more chronic lesions have a higher risk of recurrence and consideration should be given to exclusion of affected animals from the export process, and organising salvage slaughter without delay. It may be an offence under relevant welfare acts to allow eye cancer to develop to advanced stages and animals may not be allowed to be processed for human consumption if the eye is discharging or if lymph nodes are involved.

At sea, removal of a cancerous third eyelid, using local anaesthesia and scissors, offers a quick, simple and permanent cure if adequate restraint is achievable.


Both eyes should be systematically checked during selection for the export process and animals with suspicious lesions excluded.