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?

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