Synodontis Catfish: Care, Diet, Tank Mates & Breeding

Synodontis Catfish
Dr. Mollie Newton
Published by Dr. Mollie Newton PHD| Senior Editor
Last updated: June 13, 2024
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Considering expanding your aquarium cleaning crew or searching for a buddy for your African cichlids? A Synodontis catfish could be just what you’re looking for. These peaceful and resilient fish come in numerous species, making them perfect for any aquarium lover. This guide, compiled with insights from expert studies on the Synodontis genus, will offer a comprehensive overview to help you begin your own research on these remarkable fish.

Article Summary

  • Synodontis Catfish are generally peaceful but should be kept in small groups of the same species to prevent stress and aggression.
  • Providing hiding places in the aquarium is crucial to simulate their natural environment and offer protection from aggressive tankmates.
  • They require a minimum tank size of 30 gallons, stable water parameters, and a well-maintained environment.

Species Overview

Common namesSynodontis catfish, squeaker cats
Scientific nameVaries
SpeciesVaries
Size4-20 inches
Lifespan8-10 years
FamilyMochokidae
GenusSynodontis
DistributionAfrica
ColorGrey, Brown, Black, Silver
DietOmnivores
TemperamentPeaceful
Minimum Tank Size30 gallons
Place in the tankBottom to Middle
Care levelEasy
BreedingDifficult

History and Background 

Much like African cichlids, these fish originated from the same area and entered the aquarium trade because of their quirky personalities and easy maintenance requirements.

Origin

There are many species of Synodontis catfish (over 120!). They are known as bare catfishes as they don’t have other species of catfish’s body armor, or scales. They originated in Africa (mostly in Lake Tanganyika) and are commonly found in the central and western parts of the continent. They are popular in the aquarium trade as they are very hardy and can tolerate a wide range of conditions. 

FUN FACT

The African cichlid has a similar origin to this species.

Are Synodontis catfish venomous?

Yes, like other catfish the synodontis catfish have small hooks along their dorsal fin and pectoral fins that will expel venom when the catfish feels threatened. Though it isn’t fatal the venom is described as painful and some people may have allergic reactions to it.

TIP

If you must handle one of these species, use your middle and ring finger to hold the dorsal spine and flip it upside down so you are not at risk of getting stung.

Why do Synodontis catfish swim upside down?

Only the upside-down catfish swims upside down. Though it is a synodontis catfish, others in this genus do not perform this unique and quirky behavior. If you notice other species swimming upside down it could be an indication of swim bladder problems.

Appearance

The exact appearance of the synodontis catfish depends on the specific species, but all have a similar basic appearance.

What do synodontis catfish look like

Their body tends to have light brown coloration with black spots. There will be shading along the fins and upper portion of the body near the mouth. Like other bottom dwellers they have a flat body and a downward turned mouth to help them swim along the bottom of rivers. They have three pairs of barbels to assist in their search for food along the murky bottoms of rivers and lakes.

Like other catfish, the synodontis catfish has sharp spines along its pectoral fins and dorsal fins that can contain toxins that are distributed when it feels threatened.

How to tell the gender of a synodontis catfish

You can gender this species by looking at the extended papillae around both male and female’s genital pore. Males have somewhat ridged genital papillae whereas females are blunted. The male’s spermoduct will be on the backside of this papillae facing the tail. Non egg-bearing females will have two pink pores for the anus and oviduct.

TIP

The genital pore is a small bump of tissue that is usually obstructed by the pair of pelvic fins.

Males also tend to be slimmer than females, but this is not the most reliable way to sex them as body shape can change with diet and age.

Color/Variety

There are over 120 unique species, but we will only talk about some of the most common in the industry here.

Featherfin Squeaker (Synodontis eupterus)

Catfish Swimming at the bottom of the tank
Featherfin Squeaker (Synodontis eupterus)

The Featherfin Squeaker Catfish is named for its unique sound as well as how it produces it. The fish will rub the spines of its fins into grooves along its shoulders to create a high squeak. It is thought that this is a defense mechanism and mating call.

Cuckoo Catfish (Synodontis multipunctatus)

Two catfish swimming together
(1) Cuckoo Catfish (Synodontis multipunctatus)

This Cuckoo Catfish species hails from Lake Tanganyika and acquired its name from its peculiar chirping sound similar to that of the bird’s. Also like the cuckoo bird, this fish will hide its eggs in other nests and avoid parental duties.

Upside down catfish (Synodontis nigriventris)

An upside-down catfish swimming through the aquarium plants
(2) Upside down catfish (Synodontis nigriventris)

With an adult size of 4 inches and a life expectancy of 5 years, this small fish exhibits quirky behavior rarely seen anywhere else. It swims upside down along the surface of the water! It is thought that this species did this in lakes and other environments to better be able to hunt insects above water.

How big does a synodontis catfish get

On average, the synodontis catfish will grow to roughly 8 inches in length. However, there is much variation in the species, the Pygmy Catfish will only reach sizes of 5 inches in length, but the Eyespot Catfish has been reported to grow up to 2 feet in length. The Synodontis multipunctatus stays in between the sizes of two prior fish and grows to a length of 10 inches. 

How fast do synodontis catfish grow

The growth rate or individual catfish varies on the species. However, you can expect your fish to grow to roughly a third of their final size in the first year and roughly an inch each year after that. For example, the final length of the Synodontis multipunctatus is 10 inches. In the first year it will grow roughly 3 inches, and then at a rate of 1 inch per year after that.

Temperament and Tankmates

beautiful fishes swimming in a planted tropical freshwater aquarium
An Aquarium With Different Fish Species

These fish are one of the most popular for freshwater aquariums due to their peaceful nature and adaptability.

Are synodontis catfish aggressive? 

No, it is generally quite peaceful. However, they are a shoaling species and can become stressed and aggressive if not kept in a small group with others of the same species.

TIP

You shouldn’t mix various synodontis species in the same aquarium as they can become aggressive and territorial towards each other.

Will a Synodontis catfish eat other fish?

Your catfish will likely eat smaller fish that can fit in their mouth, especially if they’re hungry. While they are not predators and will not actively hunt smaller fish they are prone to getting a quick snack or two.

How many synodontis catfish should be kept together?

You should keep a small group of catfish together as they are a shoaling species. Aim to keep four or five of these fish in a school. This will encourage socialization but will also allow them to break into smaller groups.

When you first introduce the group to each other you will likely notice some fin nipping and small aggression. This is the fish establishing their hierarchy within the group. If this behavior continues you should consider removing the aggressor from the aquarium.

What fish can live with synodontis catfish

The best synodontis catfish tank mates will be similarly sized and not aggressive. Small fish can be mistaken for food, and large fish can bully your catfish. When planning tank mates many aquarists try to include other species that are native to the Synodontis’ natural habitat.

Top 3 Compatible tank mates

1. Rosy Barb

A large and mostly peaceful fish that can hold its own and is compatible with the lakes type environment.

2. African Cichlids

The African cichlid share their natural environment with the synodontis and you can find them in similar lakes such as Lake Tanganyika. Having cichlids as companions is necessary if you want to breed.

3. Rainbow Fish

A peaceful species that gets along well with the synodontis, and doesn’t mind the calm lakes environment.

Top 3 Tankmates to avoid

1. Other synodontis catfish-different species

While it is encouraged that you keep groups, and many people will keep pairs or a pair in their aquarium you should not have multiple species in your tank. This can lead to aggression and territorialism.

TIP

Synodontis is the genus classification and not the species of catfish.The above section mentions avoiding keeping multiple species such as the cuckoo catfish and upside down catfish together. However, it is recommended you keep groups of the same species.

2. Snails

These fish will munch on most anything they can get their mouth around so keeping small snails in the aquarium with them is not a good decision.

3. Neon Tetras

These fish are much too small to be kept as companions and will quickly turn into a snack!

Tank Requirements

An aquarium setup with plants
A Planted Aquarium

Tank requirements are relatively easy to manage as long as you have a good cleaning and regular maintenance schedule.

Tank Size

The minimum tank size is 30 gallons, but we strongly recommend acquiring a tank bigger than that, especially if you are keeping a small group of them or have one of the larger varieties. This ensures that they will have enough room to swim around as well as not overload the bioload capacity of their aquarium.

Water Parameters

Tank Size>30 gallons
Water TypeFreshwater
Water Temperature72-82
Water pH6.5-7.8
Water hardness4-15 KH

TIP

If you are having trouble maintaining a regular pH you can use additives such as baking soda or crushed coral to help regulate it. Crushed coral is a natural way to lower the pH.

Tank setup:

What substrate to use?

As bottom dwellers it is important to provide your catfish with proper substrate to prevent injuries or accidental eating. You should use either fine sand or large sized gravel. Using these types of substrate ensures that the gravel is too big to be swallowed, and the sand will pass through the digestive system without causing any blockages or damage.

Should I have a filter?

Yes, though aquarists use the catfish as part of their tank clean up crew because of their affinity for algal substances (especially eating hair algae!), this is no excuse to not install a filtration system. Having filters in your tanks ensure that necessary conditions are met such as keeping your pH in the proper range or ammonia levels low.

Is a pump necessary?

It is recommended that you provide a pump in your tank to improve water flow and oxygen circulation throughout your tank. As bottom dwellers your catfish are likely not getting the maximum amount of oxygen (as other species in the aquarium are using it first), and the addition of a pump can potentially mitigate that issue.

Do I need a water heater?

Yes, as one of the more tropical species that are native to Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika that have temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, you will likely need a water heater to make this fish happy. In addition, your synodontis catfish tank mates should have similar requirements, meaning a water heater will greatly benefit all fish in your tanks.

What temperature do synodontis catfish like?

They usually prefer a temperature range between 72 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit, with the ideal range being from 76 to 78 degrees.

What kind of lighting to use?

Like other catfish species the synodontis catfish performs most of its aquarium activities at night. This means that they prefer low lighting settings similar to twilight which simulates their hunting time in their native habitat.

Should I add plants to my aquarium?

We suggest not using live plants in your catfish tanks as they are notorious for burrowing and destroying root structures. Instead we suggest using plenty of broad leafed silk plants to provide hiding places throughout the tank.

If you really want to use live aquarium plants, consider a floating species that will stay at the top of the tank where your catfish doesn’t swim often.

Do synodontis catfish need an air pump?

The addition of an air pump to a tank, while not necessary, is beneficial as it provides extra water circulation and will more evenly distribute dissolved oxygen throughout the water column.

Do synodontis catfish need hiding places?

Yes, it is absolutely necessary to provide ample hiding places in captivity. Adding a variety of caves, plants, and hides to your tank will simulate the natural environment as well as providing them with a place to escape from the abrasive light or large groups of other fish. The addition of hiding places to your tank ensures that your catfish will have the ability to escape if it is frightened by tank mates or just overwhelmed with activity.

Diet and Health

Different fish food
Variety of Fish Food

As voracious eaters, you won’t have to worry about finding food that they will consume.

What do synodontis catfish eat

These fish are omnivores, and fish keepers around the world have no problem finding food for them as they will eat almost anything. In their natural habitats, food includes plant matter, detritus (decaying organic materials), small crustaceans, and algae.

What to feed synodontis catfish? 

These fish should be fed a diet consisting of roughly 80% commercial pellets, and 20% supplemental food. Supplemental food can include insects, brine shrimp, or daphnia. Frozen, live, and freeze-dried food will all be readily consumed by your fish with no issues.

As omnivores they should also be given vegetable matter such as blanched lettuce or spinach, shelled peas, or squash. Be sure that any vegetable matter is organically grown and fully washed.

How often to feed synodontis catfish

You should feed your fish once a day at dusk. This fish tends to do most of their hunting for food during the twilight and dark hours. Utilizing these natural eating patterns will ensure that your fish don’t leave as many leftovers for you to clean.

How much to feed synodontis catfish?

As voracious eaters you don’t have to worry about these fish lazily grazing at their food. Instead you should use the three minute rule to feed them and ensure they are receiving enough nutrition.

Once the three minute time limit is up be sure to remove any uneaten food to avoid fouling your water.

Common diseases of synodontis catfish

Ich– the dreaded white spot disease that is every aquarist’s worst nightmare. Ich can be potentially fatal to all fish species, especially those that are stressed from poor water conditions, bullying tank mates, or a new environment. Symptoms can include small white spots along the body and gills, itching of the body against objects in the aquarium, lethargy, and loss of appetite. Treatment includes water changes, aquarium salts, and over the counter medicine with a combination of malachite green and copper sulfate.

Ammonia Poisoning– the result of poor water conditions symptoms of ammonia poisoning includes red streaks along the body, dorsal fin, tail fin, or pectoral fins, and gills of the fish as well as lethargy and loss of appetite. Treatment includes immediate removal of all fish from the aquarium into a quarantine aquarium, water changes, and indian almond leaf tannins to help soothe their irritated slime coat.

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Ammonia poisoning can also be a sign that your tank is too small for the amount of fish you are keeping. Consider getting a larger tank and a better filtration system to help manage your aquarium.

Bloating-often the result of an improper diet with not enough fiber bloating will cause the stomach of a fish to start to bulge out as the digestive process is slowed. Treatment includes feeding the fish a diet consisting only of shelled peas until the problem resolves and increasing the amount of fiber in their diet.

How long do synodontis catfish live?

On average, the synodontis catfish will live eight to ten years in captivity with ideal water parameters.

Breeding

catfish near the aquarium substrate
Upside Down Catfish At The Bottom of The Tank

Reproduction of this fish is tricky and requires cichlid companions to initiate the reproduction process.

Do Synodontis catfish lay eggs?

Synodontis catfish are oviparous, which means that they do lay eggs.

Can you breed a synodontis catfish?

Breeding this species in captivity is very tough as there is currently no way to induce spawning through temperature or environmental ch

anges. In fact, the most successful way is to keep cichlids in the same tank and induce spawning in them starting a chain reaction with your synodontis catfish.

How to breed a synodontis catfish?

To induce breeding behaviors in synodontis catfish house them in the same tank as cichlids and induce cichlid spawning behavior. When the cichlids spawn their eggs your catfish will eat as many cichlid eggs as possible before laying their own.

When the “cichlid eggs’ ‘ which are really catfish eggs finally hatch, cichlid parents will raise the young as their own. However, catfish eggs mature faster than cichlid eggs and will hatch in roughly 3 days. Since their eggs mature faster and they hatch first your baby fish will proceed to consume any cichlid fry that was not eaten by their catfish parents.

While most cichlids make great tank mates outside of breeding season, you should immediately remove the young catfish from the tank so that the adult cichlids don’t go after them for revenge.

How to hybridize synodontis catfish

Hybridizing this fish has become extremely common due to the difficulty of breeding in the aquarium and vast number of species. While there are currently no methods for the home aquarist to hybridize their fish, commercial fisheries have begun stripping the eggs and sperm from the fish after hormone injection. Then they are able to fertilize the gametes using sperm from another species.

When identifying hybrids at stores look for odd color variations, different eye or fin color, or a kinked dorsal fin.

Is the synodontis catfish for you?

If you’re looking for a freshwater fish that does well with others, (even the aggressive African cichlid), easy to keep, and has an excellent personality the Synodontis catfish might be for you.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the synodontis catfish is one of our favorites because of its versatility and ability to be placed in almost any aquarium and do well. From beginner to advanced hobbyists this fish is a valuable addition to any aquarium.

(1) Tylwyth Eldar, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
(2) Gourami Watcher, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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