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Tetracyclines Use in Animals


Melissa A. Mercer

, DVM, MS, DACVIM-LA, Virginia Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine

Reviewed/Revised Sep 2022 | Modified Nov 2022
Topic Resources

The tetracyclines are broad-spectrum antimicrobials with similar antimicrobial features; however, they differ somewhat from one another in terms of their spectra and pharmacokinetic dispositions.


There are three naturally occurring tetracyclines (oxytetracycline, chlortetracycline, and demethylchlortetracycline) and several that are derived semisynthetically (tetracycline, rolitetracycline, methacycline, minocycline, doxycycline, lymecycline, etc). Elimination times permit a further classification into short-acting (tetracycline, oxytetracycline, and chlortetracycline), intermediate-acting (demethylchlortetracycline and methacycline), and long-acting (doxycycline and minocycline). The newest class of tetracycline-related antimicrobials are the glycylcyclines, represented by tigecycline, which contains a bulky side chain compared with minocycline.

General Properties

All of the tetracycline derivatives are crystalline, yellowish, amphoteric substances that, in aqueous solution, form salts with both acids and bases. They characteristically fluoresce when exposed to ultraviolet light. The most common salt form is the hydrochloride, except for doxycycline, which is available as doxycycline hyclate or monohydrate. The tetracyclines are stable as dry powders but not in aqueous solution, particularly at higher pH ranges (7–8.5). Preparations for parenteral administration must be carefully formulated, often in propylene glycol or polyvinyl pyrrolidone with additional dispersing agents, to provide stable solutions.

Tetracyclines form poorly soluble chelates with bivalent and trivalent cations, particularly calcium, magnesium, aluminum, and iron. Doxycycline and minocycline exhibit the greatest liposolubility and better penetration of bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus than does the group as a whole. This may contribute to their efficacy in treatment of gingival diseases that may be associated with bacterial glycocalyx. Tigecycline is a glycylcycline derivative of minocycline; its large side chain decreases the risk of resistance.

Antimicrobial Activity

Mode of Action of Tetracyclines in Animals

The antimicrobial activity of tetracyclines reflects reversible binding to the bacterial 30S ribosomal subunit, and specifically at the aminoacyl-tRNA acceptor (A) site on the mRNA ribosomal complex, thus preventing ribosomal translation. This effect also is evident in mammalian cells, although microbial cells are selectively more susceptible because of the greater concentrations seen. Tetracyclines enter microorganisms in part via diffusion and in part via an energy-dependent, carrier-mediated system responsible for the high concentrations achieved in susceptible bacteria.

The tetracyclines are generally bacteriostatic, and a responsive host-defense system is essential for their successful use. At high concentrations, as may be attained in urine, they become bactericidal because the organisms seem to lose the functional integrity of the cytoplasmic membrane. Tetracyclines are more effective against multiplying microorganisms and tend to be more active at a pH of 6–6.5. Antibacterial efficacy is described as time dependent. Doxycycline and minocycline also inhibit matrix metalloproteinases, leading to anticollagenolytic and antiinflammatory activity.

Bacterial Resistance to Tetracyclines in Animals

The most common mechanism by which microbes become resistant to tetracyclines is decreased accumulation of drug into previously susceptible organisms. Two mechanisms include impaired uptake into bacteria, which occurs in mutant strains that do not have the necessary transport system, and the much more common plasmid- or transposon-mediated acquisition of active efflux pumps. The genomes for these capabilities may be transferred either via transduction (as in S aureus) or via conjugation (as in many enterobacteria). A second mechanism of resistance is the production of a protective protein that acts by either preventing binding, dislodging the bound drug, or altering the negative impact of binding on ribosomal function.

Among the tetracyclines, tigecycline is characterized by less resistance due to efflux or ribosomal protection. Rarely, tetracyclines can be destroyed via acetylation. Resistance develops slowly in a multistep fashion but is widespread because of the extensive use of low concentrations of tetracyclines.

Antimicrobial Spectra of Tetracyclines in Animals

All tetracyclines are about equally active and typically have about the same broad spectrum, which comprises both aerobic and anaerobic gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria, mycoplasmas, rickettsiae, chlamydiae, and even some protozoa (amebae). Tetracyclines generally are the drug of choice to treat rickettsiae and mycoplasma. Among the susceptible organisms is Wolbachia, a rickettsia-like intracellular endosymbiont of nematodes, including Dirofilaria immitis, and Neorickettsia spp. Tetracyclines can also quite effective against intracellular pathogens, such as Lawsonia intracellularis and Rhodococcus equi.

Strains of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Proteus, Serratia, Klebsiella, and Trueperella spp frequently are resistant, as are many pathogenic Escherichia coli isolates. Even though there is general cross-resistance among tetracyclines, doxycycline and minocycline usually are more effective against staphylococci.

Pharmacokinetic Features

Absorption of Tetracyclines in Animals

After usual oral dosage, tetracyclines are absorbed primarily in the upper small intestine, and effective blood concentrations are reached in 2–4 hours. Gastrointestinal absorption can be impaired by sodium bicarbonate, aluminum hydroxide, magnesium hydroxide, iron, calcium salts, and (except for the lipid-soluble tetracyclines doxycycline and minocycline) milk and milk products. Oral bioavailability, however, can vary markedly among drugs and species, with chlortetracycline being the least and doxycycline the most orally bioavailable in dogs. Doxycycline is estimated to have poor oral bioavailability in horses at 2.7%, although bioavailability is better in foals. Minocycline oral bioavailability is better in adult horses at 23%.

Tetracyclines at therapeutic concentrations should not be administered PO to ruminants: they are poorly absorbed and can substantially depress ruminal microfloral activity. Specially buffered tetracycline solutions can be administered IM and IV. Via chemical manipulation (especially choice of carrier and high magnesium content), the absorption of oxytetracycline from IM sites may be delayed, which produces a long-acting effect. Tetracyclines can also be absorbed from the uterus and udder, although plasma concentrations remain low.

Distribution of Tetracyclines in Animals

Tetracyclines distribute rapidly and extensively in the body, particularly after parenteral administration. They enter almost all tissues and body fluids; high concentrations are found in the kidneys, liver, bile, lungs, spleen, and bone. Lower concentrations are found in serosal fluids, synovia, CSF, ascitic fluid, prostatic fluid, and vitreous humor. The more lipid-soluble tetracyclines (doxycycline and minocycline) readily penetrate tissues such as the blood-brain barrier, and CSF concentrations reach ~30% of the plasma concentrations. Doxycycline is the most extensively distributed.

Because tetracyclines tend to chelate calcium ions (less so for doxycycline), they are deposited irreversibly in the growing bones and in dentin and enamel of unerupted teeth of young animals, or even the fetus if transplacental passage occurs ( see Special Clinical Concerns Special Clinical Concerns Penicillins are divided into subclasses based on chemical structure (eg, penicillins, monobactams, and carbapenems), spectrum (narrow, broad, or extended), source (natural, semisynthetic, or... read more ). Drug bound in this fashion is pharmacologically inactive. Tetracyclines are bound to plasma proteins to varying degrees (eg, oxytetracycline, 30%–50%; tetracycline, 60%; doxycycline, 80%–90%).

Biotransformation of Tetracyclines in Animals

Biotransformation of the tetracyclines seems to be limited in most domestic animals, and generally about one-third of a given dose is excreted unchanged. Rolitetracycline is metabolized to tetracycline. Doxycycline and minocycline may be more extensively biotransformed than other tetracyclines (up to 40% of a given dose).

Excretion of Tetracyclines in Animals

Tetracyclines are excreted via the kidneys (glomerular filtration) and the GI tract (biliary elimination and directly). Generally 50%–80% of a given dose is recoverable from the urine, although several factors may influence renal elimination, including age, route of administration, urine pH, glomerular filtration rate, renal disease, and the particular tetracycline used. Biliary elimination is noteworthy, commonly being ~10%–20%, even with parenteral administration.

Doxycycline appears to be eliminated through feces predominantly via intestinal cells, rather than bile. Only ~16% of an IV dose of doxycycline is eliminated unchanged in the urine of dogs. A portion of doxycycline is also renally excreted in active form in some species. For minocycline, bile appears to be the major route of excretion.

Tetracyclines are also eliminated in milk; concentrations peak 6 hours after a parenteral dose, and traces are still present up to 48 hours later. Concentrations in milk usually attain ~50%–60% of the plasma concentration and are often higher in mastitic milk. Tetracyclines also are excreted in saliva and tears.

Pharmacokinetic Values of Tetracyclines in Animals


The plasma half-lives of tetracyclines are 6–12 hours and can be longer depending on age (slower elimination in animals < 1 month old), disease, and the tetracycline itself ( see Table: Elimination, Distribution, and Clearance of Tetracyclines Elimination, Distribution, and Clearance of Tetracyclines Elimination, Distribution, and Clearance of Tetracyclines ). In large animals, daily injections of standard dosages usually are sufficient to maintain effective inhibitory concentrations. Long-acting formulations of oxytetracycline, when injected IM, generally produce plasma concentrations >0.5 mcg/mL for ~72 hours. Tetracyclines usually are administered PO every 8–12 hours (every 12–24 hours for doxycycline and minocycline).

Therapeutic Indications and Dose Rates

The tetracyclines are used to treat both systemic and local infections. However, resistance and their bacteriostatic nature suggest caution with empirical use for bacterial infections, particularly in dogs and cats. Specific indications include infectious keratoconjunctivitis in cattle, chlamydiosis, heartwater, anaplasmosis, actinomycosis, actinobacillosis, nocardiosis (especially minocycline), ehrlichiosis (especially doxycycline), elimination of Wolbachia (ie, as part of the treatment of a heartworm-infected animal), eperythrozoonosis, and haemobartonellosis. Minocycline and doxycycline are often effective to a somewhat lesser degree against resistant strains of S aureus.

In addition to antimicrobial chemotherapy, the tetracyclines are used for other purposes. As additives in animal feeds, they serve as growth promoters. Because of the affinity of tetracyclines for bones, teeth, and necrotic tissue, they can be used to delineate tumors by fluorescence. Demethylchlortetracycline has been administered to inhibit the action of antidiuretic hormone in cases of excessive water retention. Because of either their metalloproteinase-inhibiting effects or their binding of calcium, they are used to stretch flexor digital tendons in neonatal foals. Finally, they are being used to decrease the risk of adverse events and to enhance killing of adult heartworms or microfilaria before adulticide treatment.


A selection of general dosages for some tetracyclines is listed in Dosages of Tetracyclines Dosages of Tetracyclines Dosages of Tetracyclines . The dose rate and frequency should be adjusted as needed for the individual animal.

Special Clinical Concerns

Adverse Effects and Toxicity of Tetracyclines in Animals

Because several adverse effects may result from administration of tetracyclines, caution should be exercised. Superinfection via nonsusceptible pathogens such as fungi, yeasts, and resistant bacteria is always a possibility when broad-spectrum antimicrobials are used. This may lead to GI disturbances after either PO or parenteral administration or to persistent infection when they are applied topically (eg, in the ear). Severe and even fatal diarrhea can occur in horses receiving tetracyclines, especially if the animals are severely stressed, subjected to multiple antimicrobials, or critically ill.

High doses administered PO to ruminants seriously disrupt microfloral activity in the ruminoreticulum, eventually producing stasis. Elimination of the gut flora in monogastric animals decreases the synthesis and availability of the B vitamins and vitamin K from the large intestine. With prolonged treatment, vitamin supplementation is a useful precaution.

Tetracyclines can have neuromuscular blocking effects and therefore are contraindicated in the treatment of neuromuscular junction diseases, such as botulism.

Tetracyclines chelate calcium in teeth and bones; they become incorporated into these structures, inhibit calcification (eg, hypoplastic dental enamel), and cause yellowish then brownish discoloration. At extremely high concentrations, the healing processes in fractured bones is impaired.

Rapid IV injection of a tetracycline can result in hypotension and sudden collapse. This appears to be related to the ability of the tetracyclines to chelate ionized calcium, although a depressant effect by the propylene glycol carrier itself may also be involved. This effect can be avoided via slow infusion of the drug (>5 minutes) or pretreatment with calcium gluconate administered IV. However, both rapid IV boluses and slow constant-rate infusions of doxycycline have been associated with tachycardia, arrhythmia, systemic arterial hypertension, collapse, and death in horses and therefore should not be used in this species. The IV administration of undiluted propylene glycol–based preparations leads to intravascular hemolysis, which results in hemoglobinuria and possibly other reactions such as hypotension, ataxia, and CNS depression.

Because tetracyclines interfere with protein synthesis even in host cells and therefore tend to be catabolic, an increase in BUN concentration can be expected. The combined use of glucocorticoids and tetracyclines often leads to substantial weight loss, particularly in anorectic animals.

Hepatotoxic effects due to large doses of tetracyclines have been reported in pregnant women and animals. The mortality rate is high.

The tetracyclines are also potentially nephrotoxic and are contraindicated (except for doxycycline) in renal insufficiency. Fatal renal failure has been reported in septicemic and endotoxemic cattle given high doses of oxytetracycline. The administration of expired tetracycline products may lead to acute tubular nephrosis. Renal tubular necrosis has also been associated with the use of oxytetracycline in horses with endotoxemia, dehydration or hypovolemia, and concurrent pigment nephropathy.

Swelling, necrosis, and yellow discoloration at the injection site almost inevitably are seen. Phototoxic dermatitis may occur in people treated with demethylchlortetracycline and other analogues; however, this reaction is rare in other animals. Hypersensitivity reactions occur; for example, cats may develop a febrile response (ie, drug fever reaction), often accompanied by vomiting, diarrhea, depression, inappetence, fever, and eosinophilia.

In high concentrations, tetracyclines can inhibit WBC chemotaxis and phagocytosis at sites of infection. This hinders normal host defense mechanisms and compounds the bacteriostatic activity of tetracyclines. The use of immunosuppressive drugs such as glucocorticoids impairs immunocompetence even further.

Dry-pilling of doxycycline in tablet or capsule form has been associated with esophageal erosion and strictures in cats; administration should be followed by approximately 5 mL of fluid. Doxycycline may be associated with GI upset; this might be reduced by administering the drug with food.

Interactions With Tetracyclines in Animals

Absorption of tetracyclines from the GI tract is decreased by milk and milk products (except for doxycycline and minocycline), antacids, kaolin, and iron preparations. Tetracyclines gradually lose activity when diluted in infusion fluids and exposed to ultraviolet light. Vitamins of the B-complex group, especially riboflavin, hasten this loss of activity in infusion fluids. Tetracyclines also bind to the calcium ions in Ringer’s solution.

Methoxyflurane anesthesia combined with tetracycline treatment may be nephrotoxic. Microsomal enzyme inducers such as phenobarbital and phenytoin may shorten the plasma half-lives of minocycline and doxycycline. Except for minocycline and doxycycline, the presence of food can substantially delay absorption of tetracyclines from the GI tract. The tetracyclines are less active in alkaline urine, and urine acidification can increase their antimicrobial efficacy.

Doxycycline combined with rifampin in foals may lead to the development of hemolytic anemia, icterus, or elevation in liver enzyme activity, and therefore this combination should not be considered a first-line treatment.

Effects of Tetracyclines on Laboratory Tests in Animals

Tetracyclines may increase amylase activity, BUN concentration, bromsulphthalein concentration, eosinophil count, AST activity, and ALT activity. Tetracyclines used in combination with diuretics are often associated with a marked increase in BUN concentration. Cholesterol concentration, glucose concentration, potassium concentration, and prothrombin time may be decreased. False-positive results of a urine glucose test are also possible.

Drug Withdrawal and Milk Discard Times in Animals

Regulatory requirements for withdrawal times for production animals and milk discard times vary among countries. These must be followed carefully to prevent food residues and consequent public health implications. Withdrawal times can vary between products, even for the same drug. Therefore, when using products according to label recommendations, it is imperative to follow the label meat and milk withdrawal times for the particular product used.

For instances of extralabel drug use (ELDU), it is recommended to contact a country-specific advisory program to obtain evidence-based withdrawal recommendations extrapolated from known species pharmacokinetics. In the US, veterinarians may contact the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank (FARAD, for withdrawal recommendations.

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