Synodontis Catfish 101: Care, Size, Tank Mates & Food

For many fishkeepers, Synodontis catfish are an appealing and interesting species to have. Due to their versatility and general ease of care, there’s a lot to like about these fish!

This guide will cover everything you need to know about Synodontis catfish care. You’ll learn about their size, food, tank mates, tank size, and more!

Species Summary

The Synodontis catfish is a unique freshwater catfish that can fit right in with a specific kind of tank. These fish are native to Africa, with the highest concentration living in the central and west parts of the continent. They’re most commonly found in the lakes of the Great Rift Valley, which also house hundreds of colorful species (with many of them being cichlids).

In the fish trade, Synodontis catfish are a favorite for biotope aquariums made to mimic the natural conditions of African bodies of water. But of course, they can also adapt to other habitats. Relatively hardy and easy to take care of, these catfish have a lot to offer.

Pair that with their unique looks, and it’s not hard to see why Synodontis catfish are so popular.


Technically speaking, there are over 120 different unique species of Synodontis catfish. However, most have a similar appearance.

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These fish have a familiar profile. As bottom-dwellers, they have flat bellies and a shark-like silhouette that stands out among other types of fish.

A Synodontis catfish at the bottom of the aquarium

Most of the body is gray or brown-colored. Large dark spots adorn the skin, creating distinct camouflage patterns that are perfect for blending in with the murky bottoms of lakes and rivers. You may notice natural shading on the fins and upper half of the body. Some fish also have bright white accents around their fins.

Like many catfish, the Synodontis doesn’t have traditional scales. It even lacks the armor that other species have.

Even still, the Synodontis has the means to protect itself. The fish is sporting spiny pectoral fins and a sharp dorsal fin. The spines are fully capable of doing damage, so it’s important to exercise caution when handling. 

Author Note: In addition to the gorgeous rayed fins up above, the Synodontis catfish has pronounced adipose fins down below. 

Perhaps the most noticeable physical feature of this catfish is its whiskers. Three pairs of fleshy barbels protrude from the corners of the fish’s mouth, assisting it on its never-ending hunt for food.


The typical Synodontis catfish lifespan is between eight and ten years in a well-maintained environment. As always, there are no guarantees. These catfish can suffer from health problems when neglected just like any other freshwater fish.

To prevent disease and premature death, you must do what you can to provide and maintain the perfect habitat.

Average Synodontis Catfish Size

The average Synodontis catfish size is about eight inches at most for species in captivity. However, there’s a lot of size variety with this fish.

They can stop growing after reaching only four inches in length. Meanwhile, some will continue to grow to a foot long! All that said, the captive average seems to be in the neighborhood of eight inches for most.


Synodontis catfish care isn’t particularly difficult. These freshwater fish are surprisingly hardy and can tolerate a healthy range of water conditions. As long as you meet their basic needs, you should have no problem keeping your fish healthy for years to come.

Here are a few basic care guidelines to get you started. 

Synodontis Catfish Tank Size

The ideal Synodontis catfish tank size should be at least 20 gallons if you want your fish to be happy and healthy.

However, that’s the bare minimum. If you have the space for it, go up to 50 gallons!

A 50-gallon tank will have no problem supporting a small group of four or five catfish. You’re free to go even bigger if you want to create a multi-species tank or you plan on keeping a more prominent school of catfish.

Author Note: These fish need ample room to swim around, and they’re not too overwhelmed with abundant space. They can be a little shy at first. But as long as you have plenty of hiding spaces available, they’ll get comfortable soon enough.

Water Parameters

The best thing you can do for your Synodontis catfish is to replicate its natural environment as much as possible. Luckily, that’s not too difficult to do at home. These fish are adaptable and can thrive in standard tropical conditions.

Here are the water parameters to aim for:

  • Water temperature: 72 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit (Around 75°F is ideal)
  • pH levels: 6.5 to 7.8
  • Water hardness: 4 to 15 KH

What To Put In Their Tank

Synodontis catfish love to hang around the bottom of lakes and rivers, digging into the sand to find food. Avoid using gravel or rocks as your substrate. Instead, stick to fine sand so that your fish can comfortably burrow to their heart’s content. You can add pieces of crushed coral but only do so if you’re trying to perfect the water hardness.

An adult Synodontis catfish

On top of your substrate material, add plenty of shelter structures. You can install some driftwood, rocks, and anything else they might encounter in the wild. These fish love to hide out in crevices, so don’t be afraid to create sizable structures they can fully utilize.

Avoid adding live plants. These catfish are notorious for digging up roots. Faux root structures are fine, but it’s best to avoid anything living and not anchored to the tank’s glass.

Author Note: The coverage you provide is paramount for this fish’s well-being. They are twilight feeders, waiting until the lighting isn’t so abrasive to hunt. The structures and decor will serve as hiding spots during the day and places to get solace from the light.

Common Possible Diseases

Synodontis catfish are not immune to common health issues. They can suffer from all the usual diseases that plague captive fish.

For example, they can suffer bacterial infections, parasitic infections, fungal problems, and stress-related illnesses. Ich is also a common condition you have to look out for in any fish.

Because Synodontis catfish can be a little shy when they enter a new environment, they’re prone to stress. When this happens, parasites can take advantage of the fish’s weakened immune system. Ich manifests itself in white spots all over the body.

It’s potentially lethal and very quick to spread. If you see it appear on any of your fish, act fast to quarantine them. Usually, you can treat Ich in an infirmary tank with over-the-counter medications.

Author Note: It’s important to be careful with Synodontis catfish when it comes to Ich treatment. They’re sensitive to copper-based medications like most other scaleless fish. Because they lack any bodily armor, they can react negatively. Make sure to use a catfish-safe formula.

Food & Diet

The Synodontis catfish is not a picky eater. It’s an omnivore with a seemingly insatiable appetite. These fish will eat just about anything, and they spend most of their time searching for leftovers at the bottom of the tank.

In the wild, these fish feed on everything from plant detritus to insects. The key to keeping them healthy in captivity is to provide a healthy mix of foods and plenty of variety.

The base of their diet can be commercial pellets. Make sure to get the sinking variety so that the food makes it down to the fish before getting eaten by tank mates. The product should provide a balanced meal with all the essentials.

Two Synodontis catfish swimming together

Frozen or freeze-dried foods work well, too. These catfish love bloodworms and tubifex worms. They also appreciate vegetables like squash and cucumber.

Feed the fish enough food that they can eat in two minutes. Wait until dusk hours to do so. They tend to stay in hiding until the lights get a bit dimmer.

Author Note: Make sure to keep an eye on any leftovers. Most Synodontis catfish will gobble up any food you provide, but raw food can quickly spoil the water if it’s left untouched. Pick up those morsels to prevent sudden water parameter changes.

Behavior & Temperament

Synodontis catfish are pretty easy-going when it comes to behavior. They’re a shoaling species and like to stay in groups when possible.

It’s best to keep them in groups of at least four or five fish. This offers a couple of advantages. 

First, a small group is excellent for socialization. They can group up, swim together, and go their separate ways when they want. Secondly, a group helps limit aggressive behavior.

These fish can get a bit territorial with others, so don’t be surprised if you see some sparing here and there. Thankfully, the fights usually never amount to anything more than some family squabbles.

When they’re not together, Synodontis catfish will stay hidden in the shadows of the tank. They become active at night, spending their time scavenging for food at the bottom of the tank.

Author Note: One interesting behavioral quirk of this catfish is its ability to squeak when startled. It rubs its pectoral fins in a way that creates an audible sound! 

Synodontis Catfish Tank Mates

You have a lot of unique options when it comes to Synodontis catfish tank mates!

As always, try to keep the sizing similar across the board. While not particularly aggressive with others, the Synodontis catfish can mistake smaller fish for food. Avoid anything that they can scoop up and swallow.

It’s also a good idea to steer clear of fish that are bigger. These catfish have the means to protect themselves, but they are still delicate enough to experience harm when faced with a large aggressor.

The best tank mates are other Synodontis catfish or species native to their natural habitat. Here’s where things get interesting with the Synodontis.

Author Note: The bodies of water in the Great Rift Valley are full of life and color. It’s home to many cichlids and unique fish species, and the Synodontis catfish gets along with most of them.

Try to go with fish that occupy the middle and upper parts of the water column. That way, the catfish still has its own space.

In addition to African cichlids, you can try large barbs (like the denison barb or rosy barb), rainbowfish, and any other similarly-sized peaceful species from the same area.


Breeding the Synodontis catfish intentionally isn’t easy. There’s no known way to trigger spawning through temperature or environmental changes.

However, you might encourage breeding by having cichlids in the tank with them. One of the more interesting behaviors of the Synodontis catfish is its breeding habits. Some call them the cuckoo of the fish world!

When cichlids lay eggs, the Synodontis catfish will swoop in to eat as many as possible. They do so discreetly, laying eggs in their place. In most cases, the cichlids are none the wiser.

As a result, they raise the catfish brood as their own. The eggs mature faster than the cichlid eggs. After about three days, they hatch and survive on the egg casing.

But as they grow and gain strength in the next couple of days, they turn their attention to unhatched cichlid eggs. Even if any cichlid fry hatch, the baby catfish quickly gobble them down!

When you see the eggs hatching, move them to a separate tank as soon as you can to avoid the parent cichlids from getting their revenge. Once safe, you can feed them freshly hatched brine shrimp until they’re big enough to live in the main community tank.


The Synodontis catfish is an amazing freshwater fish that many aquarists should think about owning. Low-maintenance and fun to observe, this is a species we’ve been a fan of for quite a while!

If you have any questions about this guide, feel free to ask us directly! We’re always happy to help out our readers.

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