How to Treat a Catfish Sting

It's not the whiskers, but the fins you need to worry about

The old Spanish fort at the entrance to Matanzas Inlet in Florida
The old Spanish fort at the entrance to Matanzas Inlet in Florida. Photo by Ron Brooks

Anglers often talk about being "finned" by a catfish, which can lead to an excruciating amount of pain. The sting of a catfish, whether a Florida saltwater catfish or many other species, is something you do not want to ignore. It is venomous and can lead to a serious infection.

Before you head out on the water, let's talk about what you should do just in case you do get stung by one of these fish. There are even some safety precautions you can take when you catch one. It may prevent a lot of pain and misery.

Can All Catfish Sting You?

Catfish stings are often compared to those of a stingray. Even a brief encounter or an angler who lets his guard down is susceptible to one of these painful encounters. Catfish are also popular aquarium fish and something as innocent as cleaning your fish tank can lead to a sting.

While some species of catfish are more venomous than others, all can hurt you if you come in contact with the wrong part of the fish. Saltwater catfish are more notorious for stings than freshwater catfish; the smaller the fish, the more likely you are to get stung.

Don't Fear the Whiskers

The most common myth associated with catfish stings is that it comes from the whiskers. In fact, the whiskers are harmless; you need to worry about the fins instead.

The catfish has three fins. The dorsal fin is on the top and two pectoral fins flank either side of the fish's body. On the front of each fin is a very sharp stinger that is filled with venomous toxins. A sting occurs when this barb penetrates your skin.

Catfish Don't Actually Sting You, Though

The catfish can be a mean and aggressive creature, especially when he feels threatened. When you're fishing, you are endangering his life, but the fish will not intentionally sting you like a dog might bite or snap when provoked.

The sting anglers get from catfish occurs when they come in contact with that stinger on one of the fins. This often happens when the fish is flopping around, either when you're removing the hook or when it's flapping on the boat deck or ground. 

The hands are the most common place to get a catfish sting, but anglers who have stepped on a fish to stop it from flopping have also been stung on the foot. Some sharp barbs can even penetrate the sole of a shoe.

Use Safety With a Catfish Catch

If you catch a catfish, handle it very carefully. Take your time and watch where you're holding the fish.

Always make sure that you have a fish gripper tool, pliers, or anything that can safely grab the fish. If it looks like it’s going to get messy, cut the hook off. When it's a choice between losing a hook and getting hit by a catfish fin, let the hook go and save yourself a lot of pain.

How to Treat a Saltwater Catfish Sting

Anglers often share stories about nasty encounters with fish. Anyone who has had a catfish sting, as well as a similar experience with another fish, will tell you that the catfish is far more painful. This is not a fish story, it's real.

The severity of the sting depends on where the barb hit you, how deep the injury is, and if any foreign matter is left in the wound. People with certain health conditions can also have a worse (and severe) reaction to the sting.

If you are stung by a catfish, you need to do a few things:

  1. Get off the water. The sting can cause nausea and you might feel lightheaded. For your own safety, head to shore right away.
  2. Do not use ice. The cold only makes the toxins more powerful and the pain worse.
  3. Immerse the injury in hot water. To reduce the pain, hold the injured body part under water that is as hot as you can stand. Researchers recommend no hotter than 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius) to prevent burning. Within a half an hour, you should notice a significant reduction in pain.
  4. Monitor it closely. If you notice any swelling, redness, or tenderness, should seek medical attention. A catfish sting can be treated with antibiotics and a doctor may need to see if anything is left inside the wound.

Also see your doctor if you notice any signs of an infection​ if the wound doesn't seem right for some reason, if you're feeling ill, or if symptoms last for a length of time. Erring on the side of caution really is your best bet after a catfish sting.