Home | Aquarium Livestock | Synodontis Catfish – African Companion Fish for Your Cichlid Aquarium

Synodontis Catfish – African Companion Fish for Your Cichlid Aquarium

Synodontis eruptusIt isn’t hard to understand the appeal of Synodontis Catfish. I mean, what’s not to like? Besides the array of bold and attractive patterns they exhibit, they have interesting history and habits that drive many freshwater aquarists crazy. If you’re not familiar with this group of fish already, read on to find out why they’re one of the most popular in the aquarium trade.

Synodontis Cats originate from the continent of Africa from the sub-Saharan rivers and rift lakes. There are over 120 identified species, ranging in size from just a couple of inches to over a foot in length. They are robust in build with prevalent dorsal and pectoral fins as well as large adipose fins (between the dorsal and the tail). Large eyes and 3 sets of barbels (whiskers) are also distinguishing characteristics. Synodontis catfish are also scaleless. 

These fish tend to be shy when first introduced to a new environment, but once adapted to their surroundings, many aquarists find them to be favorites in the aquarium.  They are active and interesting to watch once comfortable, swimming at strange angles (the upside-down catfish may be the best known for this behavior). Synodontis are also referred to as squeaker cats, named for their ability to create a squeaking noise with their pectoral fins when they’re alarmed.

Synodontis grandiopsSynodontis cats are easy to maintain as they readily accept just about any variety of food offered, greedily perusing the tank floor for anything edible. As long as the water quality is maintained they tend to thrive. They like some cover, such as caves or wood where they can hang out and feel secure, and like other cats they tend to be the most active in the evening. Though they can be kept singly, they prefer to be in groups and often congregate in their native habitats. They are not generally aggressive, but larger specimens should not be trusted with smaller fish in the tank as they may mistake them for food.  They can be housed with a variety of tank mates that share water quality preferences, but should not be housed with larger aggressive or predatory fish. Since many of these fish come from the rift lakes in Africa they are often recommended as scavengers for African cichlid aquariums. They prefer the slightly harder water and a higher pH, so they adapt well to a rift lake aquarium. River species like the water a little softer and can handle lower pH.  Be sure to research the preferences of the species you like before purchase, noting origin and preferred water conditions as well as adult size to ensure that cat will be a good fit for your tank. While Synos tend to be hardy, poor water conditions can cause their health to decline quickly, so regular water changes are essential.

There are only a few species of synodontis frequently offered for the aquarium trade. Limited availability and limited collection means most of these are a bit more expensive than most Asian and South American species. Some species are being bred in captivity by wholesalers and dedicated hobbyists, but not on a large scale. Synodontis petricola, Synodontis flavitaeniata and Synodontis multipunctatus are a few commonly offered as tank-bred individuals.  The complexities of getting captive populations to breed and raising the fry to saleable size may be to blame. These fish require specific conditions and/or biological signals to spur them into breeding conditions. Little is known about the habits of more rare or obscure species.

If you happen to be an aquarist lucky enough to have Synos breed in the tank, watch for some of their interesting breeding behaviors. In some species, spawning is incited when mouthbrooding cichlids in the tank spawn. The opportunistic cats swoop into the nesting area, eat some of the cichlid eggs and replace them with their own, leaving the cichlids to brood the eggs and nurture the fry. Syno fry tend to hatch out faster than cichlids, and the new fry dine unhatched cichlid eggs and new fry (even their siblings if necessary) before being released to fend for themselves. Captive breeding usually requires the use of hormones, whether emitted naturally into their environment or otherwise to get the process started. Careful hand-rearing from collecting and maintaining the eggs and feeding and otherwise maintaining the fry until they are of viable size must follow.

Synodontis HybridIn recent years, hybrid synos have permeated the trade. The decision to purchase and keep hybrids is a personal one. Purists scoff at these mixed pool fish and those that breed them, but the hybrids are often attractive, if not for their coloration for their reasonable price tag. In commercial breeding facilities, unless the fish are isolated by species hybrids can easily occur. The desire of dedicated hobbyists usually lies with keeping species pure to carry on the true genetic traits of said species for future generations. Some hybrids show unique traits that set them apart from pure breds in very obvious ways, while others may show only minute differences that can only be spotted by the sharpest eye.  These differences usually manifest in coloration, markings or other anatomical variations. Whether you approve of hybrids or not, it pays to know where to look for these differences if for no other reason to be sure that if you’re looking for a pure bred fish, you know you’re getting what you’re paying for.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions on Synodontis cats, please ask us in the comments section, we’ll be happy to help you find the answers you’re looking for.


Synodontis grandiops image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Haps


  1. avatar

    Hey there, great writeup!

    Synodontis Cats are very interesting fish indeed. I owned a few years back in one of my cichlid tanks, they have a very entertaining behavior.

  2. avatar

    If you don’t mind, check out my blog about cichlids and let me know what you think.


    BTW, I am a loyal customer of thatpetplace; it’s my local fish store. Always a huge selection with great prices!

  3. avatar

    is there a downfall to keeping a hybird sydontis catfish and how long do they stay shy when introduced in a new tank

  4. avatar

    Hello Jon, A hybrid synodontis would generally have similar care and requirements to its parent species. Some aquarists believe that keeping hybrids of any fish can muddy the bloodlines of the “true” species but that would be a matter of your own opinion and preference. It is difficult to say how long a fish will remain “shy”. It would depend on the fish itself as well as its tankmates and the tank setup. Many catfish are also nocturnal and would hide more during the day and be more active at night.

  5. avatar

    Hello! I was planning to buy a synodontis catfish but my kids wanted the pictus one. To make it short, we bought the pictus and my kids overfed them so they died. Poor fishies…


  6. avatar

    Would like to know if you can keep blood parrot cichlids with synodantis decorus

  7. avatar

    Blood Parrots and Synodontis catfish can be kept together as long as the aquarium is large enough and well-filtered enough for both.

  8. avatar

    I have 2 Featherfin Synodontis, similar colouring to the photo at the top of this page, after some months of hiding in the rocks a yellow Featherfin has appeared
    Do you know if this is classed as an albino or a hybrid ?
    I can upload or send a photo if required, it’s very unique and I cannot find any pictures of a yellow featherfin on any websites
    I would be very interested to know if it is normal to have a yellow one bred in the tank as from what I have read they are very difficult to breed

  9. avatar

    Hello Dave, If your Synodontis has changed colors over time, it wouldn’t be albino. Albinos would have been born albino and typically have a very pale coloration and red eyes. Coloration changes in Synodontis are normal, depending on the environment and where the fish was originally collected from.

  10. avatar

    Hi Eileen,
    Thankyou for your reply, apologies but I may have not explained fully
    The fish in question has not changed colours, it just appeared in the tank so I now have 3 of them
    The new one is yellow, has normal colour eyes and I presume is bred from the other 2 normal coloured Synodontis.

    I have a 600 litre tank, lots of rocks and hiding places, he’s quite big already so I presume it has been hiding for quite some time. I was very surprised to even see it in the tank, let alone be yellow
    I have uploaded a short video to onedrive should you be interested in seeing them all using the website link
    Many Thanks for your response


  11. avatar

    Hi Dave, I’m sorry, I misunderstood your first comment. A couple others here and I were watching that video. The yellow catfish doesn’t look like it would have come from the other two. It appears to be a different species altogether based on the pattern (or lack thereof) and the fin shape and size. Based on what I’m able to find, it looks like what some folks on PlanetCatfish.com and some other catfish-focused sites are calling Synodontis nigrita ‘Gold’. Did you or someone in your household maybe add the fish a awhile back and forget it was in there?

  12. avatar

    Hi patty I bought 2 synodontis catfish last week, the guy that sold them had me believe I bought petricola catfish . I have a 30 gallon tank that I gave to my son and he asked me to get petricola’s . After bringing them home I got a closer look at them and I now believe they are grandiops or maybe multipunctatus. How I noticed is they only have the white colouration on the back of the dorsal fin and not the front. So I am asking for help as to identify these fish. One is about 5 inch and the other is about 4 inch.
    I hope you can give me some kind of guideline as to what I have.

    Thanks Sean.

  13. avatar

    Hi Sean, If you are able to take clear photos of the fish, I’d be happy to help you identify them. For more information on identifying them yourself, I would recommend checking out the species pages on PlanetCatfish.com. They have a lot of detailed information on the differences between the species (links here for S. petricola, S. multipunctatus, S. grandiops to start you off). If the white isn’t on the leading edge of the fins, I would say they are probably not S. petricola but couldn’t say for sure without seeing the fish.

  14. avatar

    I take car eof a 40-45 gal bowfront aquarium at a veterans home. In one tank i have had 3 pictus cats and 5 silver dollars. Over time 1 of each have died, so last week I bought another pictus, a pleco and 2 synos. 2 days later, the silver dollars were acting a bit strange and one was really “off”. I took him home as his fins looked pretty shredded and medicated him with melafix. The next day he was dead, with some redness to his stomach and a bit on the side (2 zigzag loaches are in that tank).

    When I went back the next day to the vets home, another silver dollar looked like he had fungus on him, plus ick. I used the melafix, plus ick guard and shut the light off, for the duration of treatment. The next day the silver dollar was dead with what I would say was a massive issue on both his sides! I hadn’t seen fungus ever erupt like that, so was really curious! PLUS, another pictus was dead, with his mouth kind of gaping!

    I bought the new fish on the day they came into the store, but I didn’t think about that until later.l I thought these fish had brought something into the tank! Last night, no dead fish, but the silver dollars were hiding, as were the synos, altho’ I finally could see the 2 of them.

    Reading your article, I don’t see that the synos should have been an issue with the silver dollars, but I wondered! Then I got to wondering if the pleco bothered them, as I have had smaller fantails killed by a pleco!! This pleco isn’t very big, so I am confused, but the issue with the sides of the second dollar that died makes me wonder!


  15. avatar

    Hello Paula, I would need some more information about your tank to try to address the issue for you. If you’d prefer, you can email me directly at edaub@thatpetplace.com so we can discuss your issue in more detail. To start with, have you tested the water quality in the aquarium? Water tests are like the vital signs of an aquarium and can tell us a lot about the tank and any issues it might be having. To start with, the current pH, Ammonia, Nitrite and Nitrate levels would be helpful. Also, what is left in the tank at this time and how large are all of these fish (total length in inches would help)? How often do you do water changes or other maintenance on the aquarium, and what type of filtration is on the tank? What symptoms were you seeing on the fish that led you to believe it was fungus (small spots, cottony tufts, etc.) and what is the “massive issue” you saw on the Silver Dollar that died? Neither of the medications you recommended treat fungus. If you can email me with some more information about the tank and photos of the fish you are still seeing symptoms on, that would help me help you to get the tank back in shape.

  16. avatar

    Thank you, I will do that. I’ll see if I can get a pic of the silver dollar with the “fungus”! He’s currently in the freezer, so I don’t know how good it will be! the surviving fish seem to be fine at the moment!

    Thank you!

  17. avatar

    Hello Eileen,
    I have a 35 gallon tank with:
    1 clown loach
    1 red tail black shark
    1 dwarf gourami
    3 coral platies
    3 bleeding heart tetras
    4 tiger barbs
    2 green tiger barbs
    4 zebra danios
    7 leopard danios
    5 guppies
    3 bumblebee gobies
    1 yoyo loach
    1 horseface loach
    2 hillstream loaches
    1 red tail zebra loach
    2 hifin corydoras
    1 sterbai corydoras
    2 juli corydoras
    I emerald hifin corydoras
    2 pygmy corydoras
    1 whip tail catfish
    2 Rafael catfish
    1 yellow spotted pleco

    I am about to upgrade to a larger tank (hopefully around 120 gallons), but I am thinking about a syndontis. If you can get back to me about whether they would be good in this type of tank that would be great, also if you need more information just let me know.
    Thank you,

  18. avatar

    Hi Tate, With that list of fish, your tank is already overstocked and I certainly wouldn’t recommend adding anything else until you upgrade. Many of the fish you listed are also schooling fish and should be kept in larger groups than what you’ve listed and others grow far too large, active or aggressive for a 35-gallon tank. Even in a 120-gallon tank, you already have a lot of bottom-dwellers that would be occupying the same tankspace as a Synodontis. Corydoras catfish are some of the fish that should be kept in schools of at least 3-5 or more of each species, and Clown Loaches are schooling and grow to nearly a foot in length. Some of your smaller bottom-dwellers like the Pygmy Corys may be preyed upon by some of the larger, potentially more aggressive bottom-dwellers like the Clown Loaches and some of the other catfish. With that many loaches and catfish in such a small tank, I’m surprised to hear that you aren’t already seeing aggression issues but I would certainly expect it over time.

    A Synodontis Catfish – depending on the species you choose – would be a suitable tankmate for most fish on this list but not all of them together at one time in the same tank. I would recommend focusing on fewer different types of fish in the tank and getting more appropriate schools of them rather than small numbers of so many different species. If you would like to discuss your tank and compatibility in more detail, you can reach our Fish Room staff at 717-299-5691 (option 6) to speak with someone in person.

  19. avatar
    bakım anlaşması

    Nice Post

  20. avatar

    Can the dwarf petricola synodontis catfish go with a large blood parrot

  21. avatar

    Hi Anonymous, I wouldn’t recommend a Dwarf Petricola with a large Blood Parrot. By the full-grown size of a Blood Parrot, they may be able to eat a Petricola.

  22. avatar

    Hi we have a synodonis cat fish in a 64 litre tank by itself and we are looking to get other fish to join him, what fish would you recommend as not to harm him or them

    Thank you

  23. avatar

    Hi Ethan, That is a very small tank for Synodontis. Almost every Synodontis would grow far too large to be kept in a 64 liter/16.9 gallon tank. I wouldn’t be able to recommend anything else to keep in there, especially without knowing the species of Synodontis.

  24. avatar

    Brilliant blog…

  25. avatar

    i have a question regaurding the Synodontis cat fish mine is always in the upside down position and its stumic is huge like it has belly bloat is this normal for this cat

  26. avatar

    Hello James, There is a species of Synodontis known as the Upside-down Catfish as mentioned in this post. It is normal for that species to swim upside-down. Some others may swim upside-down on occasion, especially in caves or under ledges. A bloated stomach is only normal after feeding.

  27. avatar

    Good Day people hope all is well !! My name is Ryan and I have 2 of these buttheads right now and let me tell you..!!! So I have ALOT of questions but ill start with, can anyone tell me how you differ. sex? I bought one and then ended up getting another one and once these 2 started getting bigger and i mean bigger , they were racing all through the tank playing graba** and have destroyed about 60$ worth of plants. Purple Cabamba too, there where breath taking plants. Anyways, With my luck its 2 males just doing territorriall stuff. But any help would be awsome and Ive seen 2 of these at my local and they where the size of a college football … atleast, it was a kool sight to see .

    Thank you and GOD BLESS

    Ryan Tannehill

  28. avatar

    Hi Ryan/Kami, Being able to differentiate gender depends on the species. Males and females may have different coloration or grow to different sizes in some species. Others require inspecting the genital pore. Here is some information on that from PlanetCatfish.com:

    First lay the fish in your hand with its head toward your palm and the tail toward your fingers. Hold the dorsal spine between your middle and ring finger so the fish is belly up and you won’t get stuck (Which by the way, hurts like crazy!). The genital pore is in a small furrow of tissue (in healthy fish) and will be obstructed by the pelvic fins. Pull down on the tail gently to arch the fishes spine and the pelvic fins will stand and the furrow open to display the genital pore and the anus of the fish. The male has a somewhat ridged genital papillae on which the spermatoduct is on the back side, facing the tail fin. A gravid female will also show an extended papillae but the oviduct is on the ventral side of the papillae (And may also show a little redness if really gravid). A thin or emaciated female will have just two pink pores, the oviduct and the anus.

  29. avatar

    Can Synodontis Multipunctatus Catfish live in light brackish water?

  30. avatar

    Hi Kenneth, They are freshwater and shouldn’t be kept with any salinity. They may survive for a time in very lightly brackish water but it can cause health issues in the long-term.

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