I enjoy pet fish and have kept a variety of smaller and larger species. I am particularly fond of cichlids.
Most fish keepers like to have some bottom feeders in their aquarium. They can do a great job of mopping up little pieces of food that larger, messier fish leave behind. Traditionally, this job has been done by the plecostomus; however, catfish are starting to make a return to popularity in the hobby, and it is easy to see why.
Meet the Synodontis Catfish
With beautiful finnage and a relatively gentle temperament, synodontis catfish are omnivorous scavengers that will eat algae, pellets, flakes and even live food if they're larger than it. Some people regard synodontis as being rabid killers, but if kept with Malawi cichlids or larger American cichlids, they do quite well.
Choose Your Species Carefully
There are many species of synodontis—some large, some small, some expensive and some relatively cheap. If you have at least a 20-gallon aquarium, chances are you can keep a synodontis catfish quite happily. You will need to ensure that you know exactly what species you are getting, however.
Many synodontis only grow to four inches; however, some species can max out at well over two feet. For more information on various types of synodontis catfish, have a look at my Common Synodontis Species guide.
How Should I Set Up My Tank?
Synodontis are nocturnal, so you won't see them out too much during the day, and you should provide them cover to sleep under. Fake logs or a rock cave are perfect for this. Also ensure that there is more than one hiding spot per tank. If you have just one, or if spaces are scarce, the fish will fight each other for them.
If you want to see more of your synodontis catfish, it may well be worth your time investing in a moonlight, a type of aquarium lighting that simulates the light of the moon. This allows you to see your fish properly when they emerge from their cave, which they will do because they think it is nighttime.
My Aquarium: Hybrid Synodontis and Jack Dempsey
I have a suspected hybrid synodontis sharing an aquarium with a young Jack Dempsey, and aggression is fairly spread out between the two of them. For the most part, they leave each other alone; however, it is not uncommon to see one or the other take a swipe at its tank mate. Both are quite guilty of random aggression, though it is generally not serious and involves a bit of bumping and pushing rather than serious attacks.
Smaller fish would not survive very long in this tank. If the Jack Dempsey did not attack and kill them right away, the synodontis would most certainly have a go after dark.
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Care Tips for Beginners
Synodontis are fairly good fish for beginners. They are hardy, which means they won't go belly up the first time you make a mistake. You will need to keep ahead on water changes, though, and ensure that there is always clean water in the tank.
If you don't already own one, invest in a liquid testing kit that tests for ammonia, nitrites, nitrates and pH. It will prove invaluable to you in your fish-keeping hobby, and it will save lives if you use it.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Melinda Duncan on March 21, 2020:
I bought a Synodontis at the Delaware Valley fish auction a couple of weeks ago because he was so ugly he was cute and no one seemed to want him.
He is currently living in my 55 gallon tank with the plants I bought at the same time (the only fish as of now, new tank set up). I was not actually planning on buying a fish that day due to the new tank set up, but no one was bidding on him and he caught me eye as pretty cool so....
The thing is that I am worried about actually feeding him. Someone said to give him zucchini but that just floated and started to rot without a nibble. I got some Hikari algae wafers which sink and turn into a grey blob. He may be eating these after they soften because the grey blobs disappear, but they could be just sinking into the substrate (not sure). He may be eating some of the plants, as the free floating weed seems to be disappearing, but can't get more (social isolation with Covid and all), but I am not sure.
So yes, I have a cute/ugly fish that I have zero experience with that I dont want to starve. although he seems to cruse around the tank under the blue moonlight setting on my tank hood just fine.
Any advice would be appreciated!
mkellogg89 from Elmira Ny on November 27, 2012:
Very cool, Ive actually kept a Synodontis Nigriventris (upsidedown catfish) in my aquarium for over two years now and I can second that the species is a great addition to my tank.