Do catfish sting? You bet!

There is something of a debate among the fishing community about whether catfish sting.

All my life, I’ve heard and read about the painful sting of catfish and I’ve laughed it off. So you get finned by a catfish…it’s gonna hurt a bit but it’s no big deal; everyone who fishes long enough is going to get finned. Right? Right?!

I’ve caught catfish my whole life and never once have I been “stung.” I’ve had my fingers roughed up by their teeth, but never have I been stung.

Until yesterday.

Fishing at a local lake, I caught a small channel catfish. As I tried to get him off the hook so I could pitch his butt back into the water (channel cats are the worst-tasting of all catfish and not worth keeping, in my book), it happened. He caught me right on the tip of my middle finger with his dorsal fin.

And, oh boy, did it ever hurt.

And bleed.

I was pacing the shoreline, bleeding like a stuck pig, slinging my hand in the futile (but involuntary) effort to wave off the pain, which resulted in blood splattering me from head to toe. The bleeding stopped soon enough, but then the swelling began, with a throbbing that went from the tip of my middle finger all the way to my shoulder.

Do catfish sting? You better believe it.

I suppose I mostly scoffed at the notion of a catfish stinging because of guys like this fellow, a professional catfish guide who proclaims the whole stinging thing a myth:

Catfish don’t “sting”, let’s go ahead and get that out of the way now.

Catfish whiskers don’t sting. Their barbels or fins don’t either. They can cause some discomfort though (if you’re not careful)

The same guy goes on to point out that it’s the smaller fish (like the one I caught) and channel cats (like the one I caught) that you especially need to look out for:

The tip of these spines are pointed and very sharp (especially on smaller catfish, and especially channel cats).

He also points out that these spines contain venom that is injected into sting victims:

The spines contained in the dorsal and pectoral fin contain a venom that causes edema (swelling) and ahemolytic (causes increased blood flow in the area of the injury) if these spines puncture the skin.

So that begs the question: if these spines stick you, and they release a painful venom, aren’t we just debating semantics when we say they don’t sting?

The bottom line is that most people, including the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Biotechnology Information, calls it what it basically is — a sting. Here’s what the NCBI has to say about it:

Numerous species of fish are capable of inflicting painful or even dangerous stings by means of dorsal or caudal spines provided with complex venom glands. Catfish and stingrays have stings, not spines.

Here’s what recommends as treatment for catfish stings:

• Immerse the affected area in water as hot as is tolerable usually relieves pain from a sting.

• Spines should be removed with tweezers.

• The wound should be scrubbed and irrigated with fresh water.

• The wound should not be taped or sewn together.

• Oral antibiotics are usually recommended for catfish stings that become infected. Antibiotics should be taken if infection develops for at least five days after all signs of infection have resolved. Potential drug allergies should be checked prior to starting any antibiotic. A doctor can recommend the appropriate antibiotic. Some antibiotics can cause sensitivity to the sun, so a sunscreen (at least SPF 15) is also recommended for use with such antibiotics.

• Pain associated with a catfish sting may be relieved with one to two acetaminophen (Tylenol) every four hours and/or one to two ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) every six to eight hours.

While I was spraying blood and cursing under my breath, my fishing partner went and released the fish (which was flopping around on the bank with my hook still in his mouth) back into the water. I almost threw him in the water to chase the fish down and pull it back out…I wanted to cut his head off and throw him on the bank as a warning to his catfish brethren to keep their dorsal stingers to themselves.

16 Reviews

    I was stung by a cat fish , when you put the part of your body that got stung make sure you don’t burn as I did.
    If the barb stays there you must see your doctor ASAP .
    Mine went to the bone and had to be removed under full anastatic .
    The pain is very bad but suddenly will disappear .
    Make sure you visit your doctor
    Sam 0428123056

    I was stung by a cat fish , when you put the part of your body that got stung make sure you don’t burn as I did.
    If the barb stays there you must see your doctor ASAP .
    Mine went to the bone and had to be removed under full anastatic .
    The pain is very bad but suddenly will disappear .
    Make sure you visit your doctor
    Sam 0428123056

    Kudos to my friend, when I searched merely “do catfish dorsal fins stint” the ill informed website with illogical statements of catfish venom pops up first…yours is second . Sure glad I read this and I have been fishing in the channels of southwest florida and pulling out catfish after catfish…they know you’ve pulled them out and they know the next move is to grab them . I had a couple sting me and they shot they’re dorsal spike I call it straight up…in defense . I ended up bleeding profusely and just snipping the line and throwing the catfish right back in. I never intended on keeping them but they definitely were ready to put up a fight because they are not going down without one. The smaller channel catfish are programmed to fling that fin up and sting you. Edema sets in and excessive bleeding but clean hand with water and apply a little presure and it will stop. Their will be a lingering stinging effect around the affected area but it does eventually pass and as long as you keep it clean you’ll be fine. They got me in my foot and palm and its not the worst pain ever but its certainly not the best. Wear heavy gloves or have them on standby for when you pull one of those suckers in. a thick sturdy garden glove works best if a fishermens mit is unavailable. The stings initial intense pain fades away after a couple hours and will linger tolerably throughout the day then subside. Dependent on how deep and where they getcha. My foot was alright it was my palm that was the unbearable half. Cheers Ben Garrett your post has been informative and very helpful also the CORRECT information unlike the feller above ya on google search.

    A.J. 03/18/2016

        Bloody hell a lot of grammatical errors and misspellings but you get the gist. Apologies.

    Allow me to clear up the confusion, because I was poked deep in the knuckle last night, by the right fin of a 2 pound channel cat, so I have recent experience with the exact sensation, the duration of feeling and the volume of yelling that tends to accompany the event in question, also I can attest to whether or not the experience was similar in nature to other stings, like that of bees, wasps, hornets, etc., any of the various members of the animal kingdom that also puncture, inject venom and cause the sort of pain associated with “a sting”.

    In conclusion…

    It’s a sting.

    Small one got me in the knuckle last night for the first time ever. Couldn’t figure out why it was bleeding like a garden hose until I read this. Sure felt like a sting to me.

    I’ve been finned a few times by blues and channels, when it’s happened I’ve rubbed the part where I got finned at on the belly of the cat. It stops stinging, doesn’t swell or hurt there after.

      I just got stung by a catfish yesterday, he got me at the bottom of my index finger on the edge of the palm. I live in Florida and have been catching catfish my whole life. I had no idea the could sting like this. The fin went in deep and must have hit a nerve because I felt like a jolt of electricity going all the way up to the tip of my finger which 24 hrs later still feels numb. I am not seeking medical attention at this point but I can tell you it hurts like hell. Thanks for the clarification Ben!

        Just wondering if I could get an update on your recovery. I was stung about 36 hours ago and still having numbness and pain. How long did your numbness last? Hope you are doing well now! Denise

    Can the stinger stay in you? I got stung some 50 plus years ago and still have a feeling of a stinger at the lowest part of my thumb.

    You were not stung. A sting would havery involved injecting venom from a hollow stinger. You were punctured by a fin. And as painful as that can be it is still most definitely not a sting.

      Congratulations on failing the reading comprehension assessment, Les. At least read the article before you comment.

    Just stung yesterday right below ankle while swimming off coast of Mexico. Very intense pain. Burning. Was treated in ER. Dr said very bacteria laden fish. So that was yesterday, today really not bad. Any risk of infection, see Dr

    I’ve only been stung once, and that made me learn my lesson. I now carry an old rag with me to help hold down the fins while I remove the hook. Once the hooks out, either lip grip or hold it behind the dorsal fin to get a nice pic, and release it back. If you can, hold the cat close to the water with its head facing away, and softly toss it straight forward, not up or down. Since doing all this, I’ve never come close to getting barbed, and it really isn’t a hassle to carry a small rag in your pocket or belt loops.

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