The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Dog Anatomy in 2021

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As the field of veterinary medicine advances at an accelerated pace, it becomes increasingly challenging for veterinary teams to stay updated with the latest developments. To ensure effective practice and improve pet health outcomes, veterinarians need practical, concise, and relevant visual aids that can enhance client communication, increase compliance rates, and provide an enhanced pet owner experience.

Why Visual Aids Matter

VetCheck Dog Anatomy Illustration

Within the fast-paced and ever-changing environment of a veterinary clinic, effective pet owner communication is key. However, there are several barriers that can hinder this process. Veterinary support teams often struggle to keep up with the latest pet health information, while pet owners may find it challenging to accurately describe their pet’s symptoms. Additionally, distractions like pet restraint and children can further complicate the communication process. In some cases, veterinarians may not have enough time to fully grasp a case, and the primary caregiver may not always be present. The time constraints often prevent them from explaining everything from the diagnosis to the treatment plan, and prognosis.

One simple solution to overcome these barriers is the use of digital visual aids and pet treatment summaries. These tools enable veterinary professionals to present information in an easily understandable and visually appealing manner, ensuring effective communication with pet owners.

Understanding Anatomical Terminology

VetCheck Dog Head with annotated pet senses illustration

The use of veterinary anatomical terminology can be confusing for pet owners. When discussing a pet’s condition, it is essential to use both technical and layman’s terms. After all, people think and understand in pictures. To help you communicate the importance of your pet’s health and the recommended veterinary services, here is a selection of visual aids.

Common Anatomical Terminology

Here are some common veterinary terms and their meanings:

  • Abdomen: Tummy
  • Dew claw: First digit
  • Patella: Knee cap
  • Stifle: Knee
  • Thorax: Chest
  • Digit: Finger or toe
  • Flank: Side of the body between chest and tail base
  • Muzzle: Nose and upper and lower lip
  • Pinna: Ear flap
  • Tarsus: Hock

Understanding Pet Senses

Pets communicate in a unique way, using their senses differently than humans. While they possess the same basic senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste, they utilize them in ways that differ from humans. Pets have a highly developed sense of smell, hearing, and sight. This allows them to identify odors, hear sounds at greater distances, and see in the dark.

Dogs, in particular, have evolved as pack animals with exceptional senses of smell and hearing. Their heightened senses enable them to survive and capture prey in the wild. Dogs identify each other through their unique scent and often greet other dogs by sniffing their rear end.

VetCheck Dog Heart Illustration

  • Hearing: Dogs have a broader hearing range than humans, detecting sounds as low as 16 Hz and as high as 100,000 Hz (compared to the 20 to 20,000 Hz range for humans). Their ears can funnel sounds, allowing them to locate the direction of sound more easily.
  • Sight: While it was previously believed that dogs see only in black and white, recent research suggests that they can perceive some colors, albeit not as vividly as humans. Depending on the breed, dogs may possess a field of vision ranging from 180 to 270 degrees. Dogs also have better night vision than humans, thanks to their increased sensitivity to light and motion and the presence of the tapetum lucidum, which aids in low-light vision.
  • Voice: Different dog breeds have distinct voices, expressed through barks, growls, howls, and whimpers. Dogs use barking to convey various emotions, including pleasure, loneliness, fear, or stress.
  • Smell: A dog’s sense of smell is their primary sense, with approximately 220 million olfactory cells (compared to only 5 million in humans). Dogs use their sense of smell to identify different odors, making them excellent trackers. They can even detect human and animal moods from significant distances.
  • Taste: Dogs have 1,700 taste buds, significantly fewer than humans’ 9,000 taste buds. However, their heightened sense of smell compensates for this, enabling them to identify food more effectively.
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Understanding the Cardiovascular and Circulatory System

The cardiovascular system plays a vital role in circulating blood, carrying essential nutrients, oxygen, carbon dioxide, wastes, and hormones to various cells in the body. The heart acts as a pump, delivering oxygenated blood from the lungs to the rest of the body while transporting deoxygenated blood back to the lungs.

The heart comprises several structures, including the aorta, pulmonary artery, right atrium, right ventricle, left atrium, left ventricle, and ventricular septum.

VetCheck Dog Heart Illustration
VetCheck Dog Skull and Dental Illustration

Maintaining good heart health begins with proper nutrition. Taurine, an essential amino acid, plays a crucial role in strengthening heart muscles, as well as promoting eye and brain function. Most commercial cat foods contain taurine. However, when it comes to homemade diets, cats are at a higher risk of taurine deficiency and heart problems. Cardiovascular conditions can be complex, and pet owners need a clear understanding of the risks and benefits associated with medical treatments and diagnostic tests. Visual aids have proven to be effective tools for conveying risk information in a manner that is easy to understand and remember.

Understanding the Digestive System

The digestive system is responsible for processing food and converting it into energy and nutrients that the body can utilize. The journey of food begins in the mouth and continues through the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and eventually exits the body through the anus. Key components of the digestive system include the mouth, teeth, tongue, salivary glands, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, pancreas, liver, and gall bladder.

Nutrition for Good Health

Dogs are omnivores, meaning their diet should consist of both vegetables and meat. An ideal diet considers the individual nutritional requirements based on the pet’s health, life stage, and lifestyle.

A balanced and high-quality commercial diet combined with human-grade foods is the best approach. For puppies up to 12 months of age, commercial diets are particularly crucial, unless specifically formulated recipes from a veterinary nutritionist are available. Reputable veterinary nutrition companies follow strict dietary requirements to ensure balanced and beneficial nutrition.

Mouth and Teeth

VetCheck Dog Stomach Illustration

Stomach and Stomach Lining

VetCheck Dog Intestinal Illustration

The stomach is where food is digested, allowing the nutrients to be absorbed.

Small Intestine

VetCheck Dog Pancreas Illustration

The small intestine connects the stomach to the large intestine. It consists of the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum. The small intestine continues to facilitate food absorption after leaving the stomach.


VetCheck Dog Liver Illustration

The pancreas, located near the stomach, produces essential hormones that aid in digestion and regulate blood sugar.


VetCheck Dog Shoulder Illustration

The liver plays a crucial role in removing toxins from the digestive tract.

Understanding the Musculoskeletal System

The musculoskeletal system provides form, support, stability, and enables movement. It consists of skeletal bones, muscles, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, joints, and connective tissue. Common joints include the elbow, shoulder, hip, and stifle (knee).


VetCheck Dog Pelvis Illustration

The shoulder joint comprises the scapula (shoulder blade) and the humerus (large arm bone).


VetCheck Dog Stifle Illustration

The pelvis houses the femoral head (large leg bone) that fits into the hip joint.

Stifle and Patella

VetCheck Dog Stifle and Cruciate Illustration
VetCheck Dog Thorax Illustration

The stifle refers to the knee, while the patella is the knee cap. Both are situated in the hindlimbs of a dog.

Understanding the Respiratory System

The respiratory system plays a crucial role in supplying oxygen to the body and eliminating carbon dioxide. Unlike humans, pets cannot regulate their body temperature through sweating. Instead, the respiratory system aids in maintaining body temperature by processes such as panting when the pet is hot.

Key components of the respiratory system include the nose, pharynx, larynx, trachea, bronchi, and lungs.

VetCheck Dog Lower Urinary Tract Illustration

Understanding the Urogenital System

The urogenital system encompasses both the urinary and reproductive systems. The urinary system consists of the kidneys, ureters, urethra, and bladder, which eliminate liquid waste from the body. The reproductive system includes the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, vagina (in females), and the testes, epididymis, vas deferens, and penis (in males).

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Lower Urinary Tract

VetCheck Dog Female Genitalia Illustration

Female Genitalia

VetCheck Dog Male Genitalia Illustration

Speying or ovariohysterectomy involves the removal of both ovaries and the uterus. This procedure prevents unwanted litters and provides health benefits for females, including the prevention of womb infections (pyometra) and breast cancer. For males, neutering or castration reduces the risk of prostate disease, testicular cancer, perianal tumors, as well as certain behavioral issues.

The ideal time for desexing is usually before puberty, between 4 and 9 months of age, although it can be done at any age. Six months of age is considered ideal since it aligns with the completion of the puppy vaccination series. The castration procedure removes both testicles, while the ovariohysterectomy involves abdominal surgery to remove the uterus and ovaries.

Male Genitalia

VetCheck Dog Prostate Illustration

Castration involves the removal of the testicles from the scrotal sac.

VetCheck Dog Nervous System and Spinal Cord Illustration

Understanding the Nervous System

The nervous system facilitates the transmission of messages to and from the brain and spinal cord. The spinal column protects the spinal vertebrae.

Key components of the nervous system include the brain, spinal cord, and nerves.

VetCheck Dog Eye Illustration

Understanding the Eye

The eye’s primary function is to collect light and convert it into a three-dimensional moving image. It consists of various parts, including the cornea, iris, ciliary body, vitreous body, retina, lens, anterior chamber, optic disk, and optic nerve.

2021 Ultimate Guide to Dog Anatomy

Common Eye Conditions

To help you understand common eye conditions, here are a few terms and their meanings:

  • Conjunctivitis: Inflammation of the pink tissue inside the eyelids.
  • Uveitis: Inflammation of the middle layer of the eyeball, characterized by redness, pain, and poor vision.
  • Corneal ulcer: A painful hole in the cornea, the clear membrane on the front of the eye.
  • Keratitis: Inflammation of the cornea.
  • Glaucoma: Increased pressure within the eyeball, which can lead to sudden blindness. This is an emergency situation.
  • Lens luxation: Movement of the eye lens out of its normal position.
  • Cherry eye: Permanent exposure of the third eyelid.
  • Dry eye: A chronic lack of sufficient eye lubrication, resulting in eye irritation.
  • Retinal detachment: The detachment of the retina from the back wall of the eye. This is an emergency situation.
  • Entropion: The rolling in of the eyelids, causing constant rubbing on the cornea, leading to irritation and ulceration.
  • Distichia: Abnormal eyelash growth that causes irritation and ulceration.
  • Retinal Dysplasia: Abnormal development of the retina, potentially leading to retinal detachment.

Breed Predispositions

Certain dog breeds are more prone to specific eye conditions. Being aware of these predispositions enables early detection and prevention of blindness. Regular veterinary eye examinations, especially for breeding dogs, are crucial. Here are some common eye conditions and their associated breed predispositions:

  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy: Australian Cattle Dog, Collie, Dachshund, Irish Setter, Irish Wolfhound, Lhasa Apso, Labrador Retriever, Miniature Schnauzer, Poodle, Golden Retriever, Cocker Spaniel, Springer Spaniel, Tibetan Spaniel, Welsh Corgi.
  • Glaucoma: Maltese, Chinese Crested, Basset Hound, Shiba Inu, Retriever, Siberian Husky, Cocker Spaniel, Springer Spaniel, Spanish Water Dog.
  • Hereditary Cataracts: Bichon Frise, Alaskan Malamute, Australian Shepherd, Boston Terrier, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, German Shepherd Dog, Giant Schnauzer, Irish Setter, Red Setter, Miniature Schnauzer, Old English Sheepdog, Poodle, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, Siberian Husky, Cocker Spaniel, Springer Spaniel, Staffordshire Bull Terrier.
  • Primary Lens Luxation: Border Collie, Bull Terrier, Fox Terrier, Jack Russell.
  • Collie Eye Anomaly: Australian Shepherd, Border Collie, Shetland Sheepdog.

Please note that this is not an exhaustive list of genetic eye conditions or breeds. For a comprehensive list of genetic diseases by dog breed, you can visit the Orthopaedic Foundation for Animals.

Regular eye examinations conducted by veterinarians may include tests such as Schirmer tear tests, swabs for sample collection, fluorescein staining, tonometry to measure eye pressure, gonioscopy to test the drainage angle of the eye, imaging techniques such as radiographs, ultrasound, or MRI, and DNA swabs to check for specific genetic disorders.


Garcia-Retamero, R., & Cokely, E. T. (2013). Communicating health risks with visual aids. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(5), 392-399.

These illustrations have been used with permission by Hill’s Pet Nutrition from the Atlas of Veterinary Clinical Anatomy. The illustrations should not be downloaded, printed, or copied except for non-commercial use. © Hill’s Pet Nutrition Pty Ltd.

Remember, if you want to learn more about dog anatomy and ensure the best care for your furry friend, visit Katten TrimSalon for professional guidance.