Merck Manual

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Professional Version

Chemoreceptor Organs


Robert J. Kemppainen

, DVM, PhD, Department of Anatomy, Physiology and Pharmacology, College of Veterinary Medicine, Auburn University

Reviewed/Revised Apr 2019 | Modified Oct 2022

Chemoreceptors in the cardiovascular system include aortic and carotid bodies. Neuroendocrine tumors involving these organs are termed chemodectomas, and aortic body tumors are more commonly seen in animals than are carotid body tumors. Aortic body tumors may expand and result in clinical signs secondary to local tumor growth.

Chemoreceptor organs are sensitive barometers of changes in the carbon dioxide and oxygen content and pH of the blood. They aid in the regulation of respiration and circulation. Although chemoreceptor tissue appears to be widely distributed in the body, tumors (chemodectomas) develop principally in the aortic (more frequent in animals) and carotid (more frequent in people) bodies. The carotid bodies are located at the carotid bifurcation whereas the aortic bodies are found near the base of the heart. These tumors are found primarily in dogs and rarely in cats and cattle. Brachycephalic breeds of dogs, such as the Boxer and Boston Terrier, are predisposed to tumors of the aortic and carotid bodies. Dogs with carotid body tumors often concomitantly have aortic body tumors.

Aortic body tumors appear most frequently as single masses or as multiple nodules within the pericardial sac near the base of the heart. They vary considerably in size (0.5–12.5 cm), with carcinomas generally larger than adenomas. Solitary, small adenomas either are attached to the adventitia of the pulmonary artery and ascending aorta or are embedded in the adipose connective tissue between these major vascular trunks. Larger adenomas may indent the atria or displace the trachea, are multilobular, and partially surround the major arterial trunks at the base of the heart.

In dogs, malignant aortic body tumors occur less frequently than adenomas. Carcinomas may infiltrate the wall of the pulmonary artery to form papillary projections into the lumen or invade through the wall into the lumen of the atria. Although tumor cells often invade blood vessels, metastases to the lungs and liver are infrequent in dogs with aortic body carcinomas. Nonetheless, the local and physiologic effects are important, including those of adenomas.

Aortic body tumors in animals are not functional (ie, they do not secrete excess hormone into the circulation) but, as space-occupying lesions, may result in various functional disturbances. These include manifestations of cardiac decompensation due to pressure on the atria or vena cava (or both) associated with larger aortic body adenomas and carcinomas. Aortic body tumors tend to be more benign than carotid body tumors. They grow slowly by expansion and exert pressure on the vena cava and atria. Aortic body carcinomas may invade locally into the atria, pericardium, and adjacent large, thin-walled vessels. Clinical signs associated with the mass effects of aortic body tumors include pericardial effusion and evidence of right-side congestive heart failure.

Carotid body tumors arise near the bifurcation of the common carotid artery, usually as a unilateral, slow-growing mass. Adenomas are usually 1–4 cm in diameter. The bifurcation of the carotid artery is incorporated in the mass, and tumor cells are firmly adherent to the tunica adventitia. Complete excision or biopsy often is difficult because of the high degree of vascularity and intimate relationship with major arterial trunks in the neck. Clinical signs associated with carotid body tumor growth include esophageal dysfunction and dyspnea.

Malignant carotid body tumors are larger and more coarsely multinodular than adenomas. Although carcinomas appear to be encapsulated, tumor cells invade the capsule and penetrate into the walls of adjacent vessels and lymphatics. The external jugular vein and several cranial nerves may be incorporated by the neoplasm. Metastases of carotid body tumors occur in ~30% of cases and have been found in the lung, bronchial and mediastinal lymph nodes, liver, pancreas, and kidneys. Multicentric neoplastic transformation of chemoreceptor tissue occurs frequently in brachycephalic breeds of dogs.

The histologic characteristics of chemodectomas are essentially similar whether derived from the carotid or aortic body.

Although the etiology of carotid and aortic body tumors is unknown, it has been suggested that a genetic predisposition aggravated by chronic hypoxia may account for the higher risk in certain brachycephalic breeds. Carotid bodies of several mammalian species, including dogs, have undergone hyperplasia when subjected to chronic hypoxia by living in a high-altitude environment.

Key Points

  • Aortic body tumors are more common in domestic species than are carotid body tumors.

  • Aortic body tumors can result in clinical signs including right-side congestive heart failure.

  • Clinical signs associated with carotid body tumors include esophageal dysfunction and dyspnea.

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