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Basal Cell Tumors in Dogs

What Are Basal Cell Tumors in Dogs?

Basal cell tumors in dogs originate from the top layer of the skin, known as the epidermis. These tumors stem from basal cells, which constitute the bottom layer of the epidermis and play a crucial role in skin defense, alongside other cell types.

Among canine skin tumors, basal cell tumors rank as one of the most prevalent and are typically benign, meaning they are non-cancerous. However, in cases where basal cell tumors become malignant, they are termed basal cell carcinomas. It’s worth noting that distinguishing between benign basal cell tumors and malignant basal cell carcinomas can sometimes pose a challenge.

What Do Basal Cell Tumors in Dogs Look Like?

Basal cell tumors in dogs typically manifest on the head, ears, neck, or front legs. They are commonly raised, dome-shaped, and firm, often featuring a stalk that protrudes from the skin surface. Benign tumors usually exhibit a stalk, while malignant ones do not. Occasionally, they may appear dark in color.

These tumors tend to occur individually and can be hairless and ulcerated. They range in size from 1 to 10 centimeters in diameter. Despite being benign, they have the potential to grow significantly, rupture, and lead to tissue necrosis and infections. Although not constituting a medical emergency, it is advisable to promptly have all growths evaluated by a veterinarian.


Symptoms associated with basal cell tumors in dogs encompass the following:

  • Presence of a dome-shaped skin tumor located on the head, neck, or shoulders
  • Appearance of a dark or skin-colored growth, with or without a stalk
  • Itchy and inflamed skin surrounding the tumor site
  • Pain at the tumor site, potentially accompanied by systemic signs like lethargy or decreased appetite
  • Ulceration and bleeding from the tumor
  • Darkened skin surrounding the tumor area
  • Discharge of pus or fluid from the skin growth


Basal cell tumors in dogs stem from the uncontrollable division of basal cells or other skin cells, such as those originating from sweat glands, hair follicles, or sebaceous glands, leading to abnormal growths or masses. The precise reasons behind the development of skin tumors remain unclear, although certain factors may elevate a dog’s susceptibility. Environmental elements like sun exposure, along with genetic predispositions, are believed to contribute to the formation of basal cell tumors in dogs.

Specific dog breeds that exhibit a predisposition to basal cell tumors include:

  • Shelties
  • Siberian Huskies
  • Wirehaired Pointing Griffons
  • Kerry Blue Terriers
  • Wheaten Terriers

Basal cell tumors commonly manifest in middle-aged and older dogs. Additionally, malignant basal cell carcinomas are more prevalent in older Standard Poodles and Cocker Spaniels.


Veterinarians employ cytology or biopsy (histopathology) to diagnose basal cell tumors in dogs. Fine needle aspiration (FNA) is a technique used to extract tumor cells for cytology analysis, which can be conducted during a routine office visit without sedation. The collected sample is then examined under a microscope to determine the predominant cell type of the tumor, aiding in diagnosis.

If cytology fails to provide a conclusive diagnosis or if the tumor necessitates surgical removal due to its size, a biopsy may be recommended. Biopsy entails surgically excising a small portion of the tumor for evaluation by a veterinary pathologist. This procedure determines the tumor’s classification and whether it is benign or malignant.

Biopsies typically require heavy sedation or general anesthesia, depending on the tumor’s size and the anticipated duration of the procedure. Prior to administering sedation or anesthesia, veterinarians often advise pre-surgical blood tests and chest X-rays to ensure the dog’s suitability for sedation or anesthesia.


The treatment of basal cell tumors in dogs varies depending on the size and location of the tumor. Surgical removal is often the preferred treatment option to prevent tumor rupture and subsequent skin necrosis and infection.

If secondary infection is present, oral antibiotics are typically administered both before and after the surgical procedure to manage the infection effectively.

While basal cell tumors typically grow slowly, larger tumors, especially those situated on the head or leg where skin is limited, may pose challenges during surgical removal. In cases where the tumor is small and not causing significant discomfort, monitoring its progression is an option before considering surgery.

For basal cell carcinomas, prompt surgical removal is recommended irrespective of size or location to prevent metastasis and other adverse effects. Additional treatment modalities for malignant basal cell carcinoma may include radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy. Cryosurgery, which involves using low temperatures to freeze off the tumor, may be available at specialty veterinary hospitals.

During mass removal surgery, some normal tissue surrounding the tumor may also be excised. Following tumor removal, the entire mass, even if previously biopsied, should be sent to a veterinary pathologist for evaluation to ensure complete removal. With successful excision, the dog is considered cured, and the prognosis for full recovery is excellent.

Recovery After Basal Cell Tumor Removal in Dogs

Following surgery, your dog may have stitches or staples in place to close the incision. It’s essential for your dog to wear a protective collar or cone collar post-surgery to prevent them from disturbing the incision site, even if stitches are not visible.

Pain and/or anti-inflammatory medications are commonly prescribed after surgery to ensure your dog’s comfort during the recovery process. If a tumor is excised from your dog’s leg, strict exercise restriction may be necessary to prevent tension on the incision, which could lead to reopening or infection.

Monitoring the incision site for signs of infection is crucial. Any redness, swelling, discharge, or opening of the incision warrants immediate evaluation by the veterinarian.

Typically, skin tumor removal entails a two-week recovery period. Following this, your dog will require a postoperative recheck by the veterinarian to assess their readiness to resume normal activities.


As the cause of basal cell tumors remains unknown, there are no preventive measures to stop their occurrence. However, if your dog belongs to a predisposed breed, it’s advisable to regularly monitor their skin for any abnormalities and promptly consult your veterinarian for evaluation of any changes detected.

Basal Cell Tumors in Dogs FAQs

What is the expense associated with removing a basal cell tumor from a dog?

The cost of veterinary care and surgery can vary significantly depending on factors such as the type of animal hospital and your location. Typically, services provided by your regular veterinarian’s office are less expensive compared to those offered by an emergency hospital or specialty surgeon. Basal cell tumor removal surgery may range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, contingent on factors such as the tumor’s size, location, and the performing surgeon.

What is the survival rate for dogs diagnosed with basal cell tumors?

Given that most basal cell tumors are benign and can be completely excised, the survival rate is excellent, and the presence of the tumor should not adversely impact your dog’s life expectancy.

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