Health and NutritionHorses

Third Eyelid Tumors in Horses Often Go Unnoticed

Squamous cell carcinoma, also abbreviated as SCC, is one of the most common cancers in horses. Appearing as small, wart-like bumps commonly found on the eyelid or surface of the eye, they require early treatment. While a conscientious owner may quickly notice a new lump on the shoulder of his or her equine friend, even the most watchful horseperson will miss a concealed third eyelid tumor.

The nictitating membrane, or third eyelid, is a very interesting anatomical component of most mammals’ and birds’ eyes. It is a white to pinkish membrane that usually remains in hiding in the corner of the eye until debris or trauma is detected, in which case it swiftly slides across the eyeball in a horizontal motion. Interestingly, humans do not have a third eyelid, but we do have a remnant called the plica semilunaris. It is visible in the corner of your eye as a small white membrane where “sleep” or eye discharge can accumulate.

Horses have a substantial nictitating membrane. The trouble is most horse owners don’t know to look at it because they never see it. Squamous cell carcinoma of the third eyelid can be a very easy lesion to miss. It’s one of the many reasons why horses should have a thorough eye exam once a year. Just like certain skin tumors in humans, SCC is linked to UV radiation from the sun. It is especially common in horses with less pigment in their eyes, like Paints, Appaloosas, and some draft breeds. SCC is also commonly found in the genital region of older male horses with light skin. In short, the less pigment a horse has in a certain area, the more cancer-causing UV radiation it can absorb.

Although there are some tumors that spread quickly, SCC is a slow-growing kind that doesn’t seem to metastasize until a much later stage. Nevertheless, early detection is the key to early cure. The sooner veterinarians can surgically remove the tumor with wide margins, and potentially use local radiation treatments, the better the prognosis. The problem that is unfortunately much too common is that horse owners either miss or put off having a vet check out that lump on their horse’s eye. And by the time the tumor is diagnosed, it has grown so large that adequate margins cannot be taken. In short, an enucleation (total removal of the eye) may need to be performed to stop the tumor from spreading.

Provided by the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine

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