Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is a potent angiogenic factor. VEGF levels in ocular tissue of 6-, 12-, 18- and 28-week-old Goto-Kakizaki (GK) rats, a well-known model of non-insulin-dependent diabetes, were evaluated by highly sensitive ELISA. VEGF concentrations in the GK rat as well as in non-diabetic Wistar rat significantly decreased from the age of 6 weeks to 18 weeks. However, although VEGF concentrations in the Wistar rat continued to fall significantly from 18 to 28 weeks of age, the levels were maintained between 18 and 28 weeks of age in GK rats. Levels were significantly different between the GK and Wistar rats at 28 weeks of age. Results of immunohistochemical studies of the eyes of Wistar and GK rats at 28 weeks of age suggest diffuse distribution of this cytokine in cells of neural origin. Weak to moderate VEGF immunoreactivity was exhibited mainly in the ganglion cell layer, inner plexiform layer and inner/outer nuclear layers in rats with and without diabetes. However, in the retinal optic nerve fiber layer, retinal pigment epithelium and choroid, strong VEGF immunoreactivity was noted only in the GK rat. In conclusion, increased VEGF production in certain ocular tissue, similar to that in humans, is observed quite early, at least before the appearance of observable retinal changes in the diabetic GK rat. This also suggests that the GK rat can be used as a model of initial or latent phase diabetic retinopathy.