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Catfish Stings and How to Hold a Catfish Safely

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There are plenty of myths in the fishing world, but none more persistent than the idea that catfish whiskers can “sting.”

It’s simply not true--not even a little! Their whiskers may look scary, but they’re harmless!

That doesn’t mean that catfish can’t hurt you while you’re handling them--they certainly can and will--but it’s not their whiskers that are a threat. Instead, it’s their nasty pectoral and dorsal fins that you need to worry about. 

In this article we'll explain exactly how to hold a catfish and how to avoid their pointy fins.

Related: Catfish Tips, How To Clean And Fillet Catfish

Catfish pack a venomous punch, but only on the spines

It may surprise you, but many types of catfish are venomous.

The long whiskers near the mouth of a catfish are just sensory organs. They’re soft and totally harmless.

But the long, sharp spines of the pectoral and dorsal fins are designed for business.

As the University of Michigan reports, “Catfish venom glands are found alongside sharp, bony spines on the edges of the dorsal and pectoral fins, and these spines can be locked into place when the catfish is threatened. When a spine jabs a potential predator, the membrane surrounding the venom gland cells is torn, releasing venom into the wound.”

catfish pectoral spine

The top pair are front and rear views of a pectoral spine. The bottom pair depict the dorsal spine.

You may have noticed that animals that prey on fish make an effort to swallow them head first. That’s because, as a defense mechanism, fish will straighten their spiny fins to prevent themselves from being swallowed from the tail. 

When you handle a catfish, it assumes you’re about to swallow it, and it will extend and lock its fins, shake vigorously from side to side, and attempt to stick you with one of its pectoral spines. 

If it manages a hit, the impact will release toxic venom into the wound, causing intense pain and local inflammation, as well as destroying cells and possibly causing respiratory distress.

catfish sting with pectoral spine

The venom gland is attached to the spine.

But wildlife biologists like Jeremy Wright warn that the real danger is infection.

A survey of the medical literature confirms this, and aside from rare allergic reactions to the venom, the dangerous outcomes are all due to secondary infection.

This is no joke: people can and do lose fingers and hands to untreated infection!

What to Do if You’ve Been Stung by a Catfish Spine

Catfish have a liberal coating of bacteria-rich slime, including on their fins, and when this gets into the wound, infection is a real risk. That’s not to say that their venom isn’t painful, and if you happen to have an allergic reaction to it, anaphylaxis is an uncommon but serious issue.

Before we had antiseptics and pain relievers, catfishermen would rub their spine wounds on the fish’s belly, coating them in slime. As crazy as that sounds, it will relieve the pain almost instantly, but it sets you up for a really awful infection later and is a very bad idea.

Instead, follow sound medical advice:

  • Assess the injured person for respiratory distress, and perform CPR if necessary.
  • Do not rub the wound with catfish slime!
  • Remove any remaining spine with tweezers.
  • Wash the wound with soap and water and rinse it thoroughly with fresh water.
  • Immerse the affected area in water as hot as you can stand it for about 30 minutes. That should relieve the pain immediately. Added epsom salts can help ensure the wound is well and truly disinfected.
  • Do not cover the wound or tape it closed.
  • You can treat any lingering pain with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil).
  • See your doctor as soon as you can.

How to Hold a Catfish 

Since the spines are the issue, you need to grip the catfish firmly while keeping your hands out of harm’s way.

hold a catfish from behinds its fins

The dorsal fin is pressed flat, and the pectoral fins are out in front where they can’t get you.

On smaller cats that can be held with one hand, grasp the fish in front of the dorsal fin and behind the two pectoral fins.

This video shows you how it’s done:

For large cats, a lip gripper like Ensport’s is ideal. They can also be used on the little guys, and they pretty much guarantee that you won’t end up with a painful hole in your hand.

Check out our buying guide for the best fish grippers

hold a catfish with fish grippers

About The Author
John B
If it has fins, John has probably tried to catch it from a kayak. A native of Louisiana, he now lives in Sarajevo, where he's adjusting to life in the mountains. From the rivers of Bosnia to the coast of Croatia, you can find him fishing when he's not camping, hiking, or hunting.
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