Structure and Function of the Lymphatic System in Dogs

Below is information about the structure and function of the canine lymphatic system. We will tell you what the lymphatic system is, where it is located, how the lymphatic system works in dog as well as common diseases that affect the lymphatic system in dogs. The lymphatic system is commonly referred to as the “lymph” system.

What Is the Lymphatic System?

A dog’s lymphatic system is a complex and vital system primarily responsible for the transportation of lymph and for participating in many immune functions of the body. The lymphatic system occurs throughout the body and is made up of small glands called lymph nodes, which are connected to each other by a series of vessels called lymphatics. Other important organs in this system include the bone marrow, spleen, thymus and gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), which is the lymphatic tissue associated with the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Where Is the Canine Lymphatic System?

The lymphatic system is located throughout the body and has many components:

What Is the General Structure of the Lymphatic System in Dogs?

The lymphatic system is composed of a network of lymph vessels referred to as lymphatics, as well as certain organs and tissues, including the lymph nodes, bone marrow, spleen, thymus and GALT.

Lymph is a milky fluid that flows throughout the system. It contains proteins, fats and a type of white blood cell called lymphocytes. Lymph is collected from the fluid of various tissues and eventually is returned to the blood circulatory system. The lymphatic system provides another route by which fluid can flow from distant tissues back into the blood stream, one that is separate from capillaries and veins. It also carries proteins and other substances away from tissues that cannot be removed or transported directly into the blood system.

Similar to the blood circulatory system, the lymphatic system is comprised of fine channels that lie adjacent to the blood vessels. These lymphatic vessels eventually merge into a rather large vessel called the thoracic duct. As the lymph is carried from distant parts of the body, it is collected into larger and larger vessels until the vessels all converge in the chest and deposit the lymph in the large vein (cranial vena cava) leading to the right atrium of the heart.

The lymph moves through the lymphatic vessels toward the lymph nodes. The lymph nodes lie at varying points along the course of the lymphatic chain and can form clusters in some areas of the body. Lymph nodes have a dense fibrous outer coating, called a capsule and are filled with white blood cells and spaces containing lymph fluid. Several types of white blood cells predominate in the lymph nodes, particularly lymphocytes, plasma cells, and macrophages.

The bone marrow consists of connective tissue, the cells of which form a delicate meshwork within the marrow cavity. The marrow cavity is permeated by numerous thin-walled blood vessels. Within the spaces of this tissue, the immature and adult stages of different blood cells exist.

The spleen is the largest body of lymphatic system. It is a dark red organ that is supplied with numerous blood vessels. A tough capsule of fibrous tissue covers the spleen. The splenic “pedicle” is located along one surface and serves as the entry and exit point for blood vessels. The internal structure of the spleen consists of:

The thymus is an organ that varies in size depending on the age of the individual. It is largest in young animals and shrinks to a very small size in the adult.

GALT is present throughout the gastrointestinal tract. Peyer’s Patches are aggregates of lymphoid tissue found in the small intestine and are a type of GALT.

What Are the Functions of the Lymphatic System in Dogs?

The lymphatic system has several very important functions: absorbing excess fluid from tissues and returning it to the bloodstream, absorbing fat from the gastrointestinal tract, transporting white blood cells and certain proteins, and playing an important role in the immune system, particularly in the production of antibodies (immunoglobulins).

What Are Common Diseases of the Canine Lymphatic System?

Due to the distribution and complexity of the lymphatic system, many disorders may affect all or some part of it. The most common disorders seen in dogs include the following:

What Types of Diagnostic Tests Are Used to Evaluate the Lymphatic System in Dogs?

Several tests are particularly helpful in evaluating the lymphatic system. Depending on the part or parts of the lymphatic system involved, a combination of tests may be recommended by your veterinarian.