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Structure and Function of the Respiratory Tract in Dogs

By: Dr. Bari Spielman

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What Is the Respiratory System?

The respiratory system is a series of tracts and organs responsible for respiration, without which life would not be possible. Respiration is the term used to describe breathing. It involves the inhalation of air and the intake of oxygen, as well as the exhalation of waste gases such as carbon dioxide from the lungs.

Besides breathing, the respiratory tract serves other important roles, such as the humidification and warming of air before it enters the body, the trapping and expelling of foreign substances, facilitation of the sense of smell, and the production of vocal sounds (e.g. barking, growling). The respiratory system consists of the nasal passages, the back of the mouth (nasopharynx), the voice box (larynx), the windpipe (trachea), the lower airway passages, and the lungs.

Where Is the Respiratory Tract Located?

The respiratory tract is a large, contiguous system comprised of several structures. The respiratory system begins at the nostrils, involves several structures of the head, continues down the neck and ends at the lungs that lie in the chest cavity.

  • The nose is positioned in the center of the face. The structure and length of the nose varies greatly in dogs. In dolichocephalic breeds of dogs (e.g. collie, Doberman pinscher, German shepherd dog), the nose is quite long and prominent. In brachycephalic breeds of dogs (e.g. pug, Pekingese, Lhasa apso, bulldog), the nose is quite short and flattened.

  • The nasal passages lie within the nose between the nostrils and the back of throat. There are two passages, one on each side of the nose. They are separated by a bony plate or septum until they end at the nasopharynx.

  • The nasal cavity is surrounded by sinuses. The sinuses are air filled spaces within the bones of the skull. The major sinuses lie just below and above both eyes.

  • The pharynx is the structure that lies at the back of the mouth and throat. It is the cavity behind the tongue and nasal passage through which both food and air are transported to deeper structures. The portion of the pharynx that is part of the respiratory tract is referred to as the nasopharynx, and it connects the back of the nasal cavity to the larynx (voice box).

  • The larynx is located directly behind the base of the tongue and soft palate, and lies between the pharynx and the trachea (windpipe). The larynx covers the trachea during swallowing so that food does not enter into the windpipe.

  • The trachea is a cylindrical tube that runs from the base of the larynx to the beginning of the airways in the lungs. At its termination in the chest it splits into two branches, with one branch for each set of lungs (right and left). Within the chest it lies just above the base of the heart, and just next to and below the esophagus.

  • Once the trachea splits into two branches, the airway passages are called bronchi. The bronchi spread out into lung tissue and continue to divide into smaller and smaller hollow channels as they go further into the lungs. The airways eventually terminate in tiny air pockets within the lungs called alveoli.

  • There are two sets of lungs on either side of the chest cavity. They surround the heart and fill most of the chest between the base of the neck and the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen.

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