Experiments were performed on anesthetized cats to test the theory that the interval between phrenic bursts is comprised of two phases, stage I and stage II of expiration. Evidence that these represent two separate neural phases of the central respiratory rhythm was provided by the extent to which stage duration is controlled individually when tested by superior laryngeal, vagus and carotid sinus nerve stimulation. Membrane potential trajectories of bulbar postinspiratory neurons were used to identify the timing of respiratory phases. Stimulation of the superior laryngeal, vagus and carotid sinus nerves during stage I of expiration prolonged the period of depolarization in postinspiratory neurons without significantly changing the durations of either stage II expiratory or inspiratory inhibition, indicating a fairly selective prolongation of the first stage of expiration. Changes in subglottic pressure, insufflation of smoke into the upper airway, application of water to the larynx or rapid inflation of the lungs produced similar effects. Sustained tetanic stimulation of superior laryngeal and vagus nerves arrested the respiratory rhythm in stage I of expiration. Membrane potentials in postinspiratory, inspiratory and expiratory neurons were indicative of a prolonged postinspiratory period. Thus, such an arrhythmia can be described as a postinspiratory apneic state of the central oscillator. The effects of carotid sinus nerve stimulation reversed when the stimulus was applied during stage II expiration. This was accompanied by corresponding changes in the membrane potential trajectories in postinspiratory neurons. The results manifest a ternary central respiratory cycle with two individually controlled phases occurring between inspiratory bursts.