Getting Started with Dog Anatomy

Getting Started with Dog Anatomy
21 Dec 2016

Do you want to work in animal healthcare?

Perhaps you want to be a vet or vet tech, become an animal physio or train pets. To give the right professional image you need to know the right terms for dog anatomy. Using the wrong word can stop people taking you seriously.

A classic example of using the wrong word happened when I was at vet school. Another student (definitely not me!) pointed into a muddy field and the “coat’ the horse was wearing. Of course it was a rug, not a coat, and the farmer immediately blanked this student as a waste of space for knowing nothing about horses. This wasn’t the case, but the farmer couldn’t get past the glaring error of calling a horse rug, a coat.

Anatomy is a huge topic; indeed my dog anatomy bible is right up there with the thickest, chunkiest book in the house, so let’s see what we can distil it down into some practical bite-sized basics.

The Best Paw Forward

Dogs are quadrupeds, meaning they have four legs. But of course they don’t have arms and legs (ouch, beginner’s error) but forelimbs and hindlimbs, indeed, if you wanted to get even fancy use thoracic limb (at the front) and pelvic limb (at the back).

Also, the term foot is open to misunderstanding (front or back?) so it’s more professional to use forepaw or hindpaw. While we’re on the subject, did you know that the forelimbs carry 60% of the dog’s weight and the hindlimbs 40%?

The good news is that head, neck, and trunk are the same in human and dog anatomy, so breath-easy, no trick there.

Which Way Up?

Vets are very fond of talking in what sounds like a foreign language: ventro-dorsal, cranio-caudal, rostro-palmer. In fact, what they’re doing is using anatomically descriptive terms to describe a location so there’s no room for doubt.

If you’re lucky enough to see practice with a patient vet who talks you through radiographs, to get the most out of what their explaining, it helps to understand these directional terms. PS, you’ll notice they tend to come in pairs, like left and right, and up and down.


Ventral relates to features located on the underside of the animal, eg, nipples are located ventral abdomen. The great thing about the term ventral is you can use it locally, eg on the head, so you might say: “The laceration is on the ventral neck”, meaning the cut is on the underside of the neck.


This is the opposite of ventral and relates to the top surface or back of the dog. For example, “The tick is attached to the dorsal neck”, meaning you’ll find it on the back of the neck.


This relates to the front or towards the head of the animal.


This relates to the rear or towards the back of the animal. Again, these terms are used to give directions within a smaller part of the body, for example “The caudal abdomen is tender”, which is a neat way of saying the back end of the dog’s tummy is sore. 


To the midline of the animal (in a vertical plane)


Away from the midline in a vertical plane, thus: “The dog’s floppy ears hang lateral to the head, whilst his waggy tail sits on the median.”

Some Anatomical Landmarks

No one expects you to name every bone in the body, but a working knowledge of the major bones and landmarks in dog anatomy is going to impress.

The backbone or spine is divided into five regions:

Cervical spine:

Roughly speaking this is the area between the head and the shoulders (what we think of as the neck)

Thoracic spine:

In layman’s terms this as the part of the back associated with the chest and ribs.

Lumbar spine:

The part behind the ribs and before the pelvis.


This is a short segment made up of three fused backbones that make up part of the pelvis.

Coccygeal vertebrae:

OK, the tail! That wonderful waggy apparatus is the end part of the backbone and made up of coccygeal vertebrae.

Oh yes, the spine is made up of lots of smaller bones or vertebrae. The shape and structure of the vertebrae varies depending on its location, hence why it’s so useful to know the difference between thoracic and lumbar, or cervical and coccygeal.

Now if your keeping up, you’ll realize you can subdivide parts of the spine using the directional terms we learnt earlier, for example ‘the cranial cervical spine’ or the part of the backbone in the neck that is closest to the head. Do you start to see the value of use short accurate anatomical terms; it saves a lot of words!

OK, before we get carried away, let’s also get hold of some basics.


This refers to the chest, eg the heart is located in the thorax.


There are lots of words for this such as belly or tummy, all very colorful, but strictly speaking abdomen is correct.

Let’s Keep Things Moving

To shake things up a little, here are a couple of basic terms a vet uses a lot during a lameness examination.

Flexion: This is usually applied to joints and refers to the bending or folding of a joint such as the elbow joint.

Extension: This one is clunky to explain because it’s the opposite of a joint flexing and the joint straightening, so a flexed stifle (knee) is bent, where an extended stifle is straight.

As I’ve raised the subject, let’s finish with a quick look at joint names and how dog anatomy differs from human.

Shoulder:       Nope, actually this is the same

Elbow:            Ditto

Wrist:              Also called the carpus, but no one will bat an eyelid if you call it a wrist.

Digits:             These are fingers or toes.

Hip:                 Ditto

Stifle:              We recognize this as the knee

Hock:              Our ankle joint.

We’re only just scratching the surface, but I hope you enjoyed this quick romp through dog anatomy. There’s plenty more where this came from! Anatomy polarizes opinion: Some love it (me!) and others hate it. Where do you stand; could you paw over an anatomy book for hours, or think it dull and boring? Share your thoughts and leave a comment.


Pippa Elliott

Pippa Elliott, BVMS MRCVS, is a veterinarian with 27-years' experience in companion animal practice. Pippa's first job was in a practice by the sea, where she acquired her first (of many) waif-and-stray, a Dockyard Cat Rescue kitten, called Skate. She then worked for the PDSA (People's Dispensary for Sick Animals) which is a national charity that provides veterinary care for the animals of owners with limited finance. Currently Pippa works in a Veterinary Clinic in UK.