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Do Dogs Have Tonsils? Understanding The Dog’s Upper Throat And The Role Of Tonsils - PawSafe

Do Dogs Have Tonsils? Understanding The Dog’s Upper Throat And The Role Of Tonsils

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

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Most of us have had tonsillitis, but do dogs have tonsils too? These small nodes may be hard to see, but they are vital to a dog’s health. The tongue hides away healthy dog tonsils, but they become pronounced if inflamed. 

Tonsils are self-maintaining, but practices like brushing and dog mouthwashes promote good oral health, which can help prevent infections. Another point is that tonsils are situated in the part of the throat called the pharynx, where dogs often get throat damage from collars that are too tight or from pulling on leashes. This is why we always encourage using a harness to prevent pulling rather than a collar. 

As dog owners, it’s important that we understand as much as possible about our dog’s anatomy if we want to stay on top of their health. Tonsils are particularly relevant to owners of small-breed and short-nosed dogs like Chihuahua Mixes, Pugs, Bulldogs, or Pekingeses, as these dogs are the most likely to have tonsil issues. 

Pawrents have all kinds of questions about their dog’s anatomy, and rightly so because how can you not know your best friend inside out? We’ve looked at whether dogs have lips or Adam’s apples, so let’s delve into canine tonsils.

A dog’s tonsils have their functions, anatomy, and even diseases, just like any body part. Luckily, tonsil issues are rare in dogs, and most owners may go through their pet’s entire lifetime without dealing with them. It’s nearly impossible to see dog tonsils unless the dog is under anesthetic. This video shows a vet examining a dog’s tonsils that are aggravated by grass.

And if you’re curious about the exact anatomy of a dog’s throat and pharynx, you can see an in-depth explanation here:

Anatomy of A Dog’s Tonsils and Throat

Skimming over a dog’s tonsil anatomy will show how the nodes perform their necessary functions. The soft-tissue tonsils are lymph nodes and are situated inside a “crypt.” If the tonsils are inflamed because a dog has an infection, they swell and bulge out of the crypt.

Although you might see two tonsils at the back of a dog’s throat, they actually have three tonsils. These are called lingual tonsils, the paired palatine tonsil, and the pharyngeal tonsil. The paired palatine tonsils are the largest.

The lingual tonsils are tiny and barely noticeable in dogs and are at the base of the tongue. Despite this, they still aid the larger palatine tonsils to protect against bacteria. The Pharyngeal tonsils are also called adenoids, located in the nasopharynx. 

Note: We usually mean just the palatine tonsils when we talk about dog tonsils. But scientifically, we also mean all the other ones.

Tonsils are part of the mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT), so they contain T cells, B cells, and macrophages that are part of the immune system and kill pathogens. 

What are the Functions of the Tonsils in Dogs?

Tonsils are the first line of defense against foreign bodies and bacteria entering the pharynx. Since tonsils are lined with lymphocytes, these nodes fight and kill microorganisms making their way into the dog’s mouth. 

Trapping the microbes entering the dog’s nose and mouth when they breathe effectively fights infection. For this reason, tonsils are a necessary part of your dog’s immune system. They have a notable role in decreasing diseases of the upper respiratory tract.

In fact, research has shown that adenoidectomy and tonsillectomy (surgeries that remove the tonsils) contribute to a two or three-fold increase in upper tract respiratory disease risk. So, small as they are, tonsils are a vital part of dog anatomy. 

What Causes Swollen Tonsils in Dogs?

Swollen tonsils in dogs indicate a viral or bacterial infection. Since these nodes trap bacteria and foreign objects entering the mouth, they may swell up if they suck up enough bacteria. See the video below of a vet examining a dog with swollen tonsils.

Issues due to bacteria or disorders cause swelling on both tonsils, while foreign material causes one-sided swelling. Normal tonsils are relatively challenging to see, but inflamed, swollen ones fill up the back of the throat. You’ll observe signs like sneezing or gagging before you realize that swollen nodes are the culprit. 

BOAS & Tonsils In Short-nosed Dogs

Short-nosed dogs, such as Pugs, Bulldogs, or Boxers, are prone to Brachycephalic Obstructive AIrway Syndrome or BOAS. This is where multiple deformities in their mouth, nose, and throat obstruct their air passages, making them prone to potentially fatal issues like heatstroke. It also leads to problems like chronically dry and cracked noses.

Many abnormalities in a brachycephalic dog’s airways can cause BOAS (including narrow nostrils and larger tongues), and enlarged tonsils are one of the problems.

Everted/hypertrophic tonsils are very common in dogs with BOAS. This is where tonsils are larger and stretch out of the crypt, making the throat even narrower. Of course, this is one of many things that can restrict breathing in dogs with very short noses. A veterinarian may opt to do surgery to remove part of the tonsils in these cases and open the pharynx a bit.

Tonsillitis in Dogs

A dog’s tonsils can become inflamed, causing tonsillitis, where the tonsils get red, swollen, and painful. Tonsillitis is mainly secondary to dental problems and lung, airway, mouth, or nose disorders. Primary Tonsillitis without an underlying cause is common in small and brachycephalic breeds.

 Causes of Tonsillitis in Dogs

  • Dental diseases like Periodontitis are the main cause of the disease;
  • Foreign object lodged in the throat;
  • Chronic tonsillitis that keeps recurring and is particularly common in brachycephalic breeds;
  • Throat tumors; and
  • Continuous vomiting and coughing that introduces bacteria to the tonsils.

Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and hemolytic streptococci are the most common bacteria associated with tonsillitis. 

Signs of Tonsillitis in dogs include:

  • Gagging as though something got stuck in the throat;
  • Reduced appetite due to the discomfort;
  • Lip licking to communicate the pain they feel;
  • The dog isn’t as active as normal;
  • Salivation; 
  • Trouble swallowing; and 
  • Bad breath.

It’s best to consult your vet once you suspect tonsillitis in dogs. The disease may go away on its own, but sometimes it persists. Even after eliminating primary reasons like dental disease, Recurrent tonsillitis may suggest that it’s chronic and needs medical attention. 

Antibiotics are the typical treatment for tonsillitis since bacteria often cause it. However, the disease will recur until the primary cause is identified and treated.

Dog Tonsil Tumors & Cancer

Very rarely, dogs can get cancer in their tonsils, called squamous cell carcinoma. This is a very aggressive form of cancer. In these cases, you may notice

  • Weight loss;
  • Struggling to eat or swallow;
  • Drooling (sometimes with blood; and
  • And bad breath.

If you notice swelling around a dog’s throat, see a veterinarian immediately. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Do Dogs Get Their Tonsils Removed?

Tonsillectomy, the surgical removal of tonsils, is rarely recommended. This is because vets can quickly resolve most tonsillitis cases with antibiotics without removing the tonsils. When dogs have enlarged tonsils because of Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome, a vet may remove part of them to open the airway.

However, tonsil removal is discouraged because of the tonsils’ essential role in fighting microbes from entering the tracheal cavity. Vets recommend this procedure only if tonsillitis keeps recurring or if antibiotic treatment doesn’t work effectively.

Can Dogs Get Strep Throat?

Dogs can’t get strep throat as we know humans but can contract a similar condition, tonsillitis. Streptococcus pyogenes cause strep throat in humans, but the virus doesn’t cause the disease in dogs.

However, even if dogs can’t get strep, they harbor the bacterium ( Streptococcus pyogenes) in their mouths. Dogs can therefore transmit strep throat to humans when they come in for sloppy smooches. 

Final Thoughts

Dogs have tonsils at the back of their throat that help fight infection by trapping mouth and nose microbes. They can get tonsillitis, which is tonsil inflammation, causing pain, gagging, and reluctance to eat. Dogs can’t get strep throat even if they harbor the specific bacterium that causes it in their mouth.

Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe

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Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.