Ask the Vet

Cancer Eye is Heritable, but Treatable

White-faced cows are sometimes more likely to have a heritable condition known as squamous cell carcinoma, commonly called "cancer eye." (DTN/Progressive Farmer image by Claire Vath)

I bought a set of cows a few weeks ago. I noticed one of the cows has a red, wartlike growth on the inside of one of her eyes. She may be the best cow in the bunch and has a very nice heifer calf. The producer has offered to replace her, give me my money back or help pay to fix her if this is a problem. What do you think this is, and what do you think I should do?


If this is a white-faced cow, I would bet on squamous cell carcinoma (cancer eye) of the third eyelid. If you are thinking of keeping her, your veterinarian needs to confirm this.

The third eyelid is an extra "lid" all nonprimate mammals have. It's on the lower inside of the eye and can move from that point diagonally upward. It helps keep the cornea clean (think "windshield washer"), produces tears, contains lymphoid tissue that produce antibodies to fight infection and protects the cornea from injury. It's also a common site, along with the lids and the globe, for cancer eye.

A squamous cell carcinoma in this location may respond well to treatment, as the affected portion of this third eyelid can often be surgically removed. Removal may result in a complete resolution of the problem, but we have to consider genetics. The same factors and same genetics that led to the cancer are still present in this cow, and the tendency toward cancer eye is a heritable trait. It could recur at this site or another site in either eye, and she has a heifer calf that may have a tendency toward the ailment.

Let me say, you are dealing with a very reputable producer. I would take him up on his offer to replace her or refund your money.