can a catfish eat a human

Can a Catfish Eat a Human?

Catfish come in all shapes and sizes, from several inches long to several hundred pounds or more. Some with teeth, some without whiskers, all with razor-sharp, venom-coated spines. They can be found in inland and coastal waters on every continent on the globe except Antarctica. Their behaviors range from parasitic to predatory. But are they man-eaters? Despite the prolific variations of myths and legends claiming otherwise…

So, can a catfish eat a human? No, there is no official record of a catfish eating a human nor any definitive evidence  of a person ever being consumed by one.

Don’t let your guard down just yet, however. Just because a catfish has never eaten a person doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous…or that they haven’t killed one before.

Read on to discover the source of the legends and learn the deadly truth about catfish. Educate yourself on how to defend yourself against one of nature’s most adaptable and ubiquitous species as we travel the globe and through history to learn why these pernicious rumors have persisted for centuries.

Where Did the Myths Come From?

Humans have been interacting with and mythologizing catfish for a very long time. Archeological evidence of humans catching, cleaning, and consuming catfish was discovered in Tanzania and dated at nearly 2-million years old. They can be found in artwork all across the world, from Neanderthal cave paintings to Japanese sumi-e.

can catfish eat humans

It’s hard to pinpoint why humans are so fascinated with catfish, but there’s no arguing that the infatuation is real. If the massive amount of historical and archeological evidence that’s been collected isn’t enough to convince you, consider the very recent explosion in the hand-fishing method commonly referred to as “noodling”. Once an efficient and effective way to gather large quantities of food quickly for Native American (and later American pioneers who appropriated the technique), the country’s attention returned to this ancient fishing practice in the early 2000’s and its popularity has snowballed since.

With so much shared history between our species — not to mention, catfish anglers being well-reputed for their tall tales and stretched truths — it seems inevitable that myths and legends would arise. In the Lake Biwa area of Japan in the 16th century a story began to spread of a colossal subterranean catfish who would flail and thrash about when it became restless or irritated. It was said this fish was so massive its fits were the cause of the earthquakes which often affected the region. The Ojibwe, a Native American peoples, also regarded the catfish (“maanameg”) as a sacred creature, representing long life and wisdom, among other important aspects.

Modern catfish myths are no less pervasive and fantastical. Nearly since their widespread installation began large federal dams have been rumored to harbor gigantic catfish at their foundations — true anomalies even among the larger species. Ancient, hulking, opportunistic beasts who lurk beneath the crashing torrent of water raining down from the spillway above, waiting for helpless pray to be pulled down with the water.

Many people have certainly heard some form of the tale of the old fisherman who pulled this monster up from its hole at some point, or nearly did and lost it after a brief glance at its immense size. Sometimes the old angler is a younger diver, either a daring hobbyist or contracted by the government to perform some maintenance on the dam, who unexpectedly encounters the leviathan in the deep and lives to tell the tale.

Taking this long chronicle on our species intertwining into account, one can begin to understand how quickly and easily rumors of man-eating catfish can emerge and spread.

Is It Possible for a Catfish to Eat a Person?

No, not for most species. Though some, like the Mekong Giant Catfish of Southeast Asia, recorded at over 600-lbs., can grow to intimidating sizes, most don’t exceed three or four feet, and the smallest catfish are truly minuscule at mere inches. Even of the species known to grow significantly larger, none but a rare few achieve the sizes required to swallow a person.

Catfish are omnivores, feeding on flora and fauna alike, and will eat almost anything they can fit in their mouths — but therein lies the crux. For even the largest catfish, achieving a jaw size that would allow them to swallow even a small human, such as  a child, would be a truly freakish achievement.

What’s more, catfish eat a little differently than most other fish species. Utilizing the physical phenomenon of suction, they quickly draw prey into their mouths and swallow them whole. If the morsel proves too large to fit, the catfish will try to spew it back out. This often works, but occasionally the object or organism will become lodged within the fish’s jaws and eventually cause the catfish to perish.

All things considered, it would be difficult to imagine any catfish being capable of swallowing a small person whole in a single gulp.

Are Catfish Dangerous?

Danger can be defined as “the possibility of being hurt or injured”, and using this definition, catfish are unarguably dangerous. All catfish species are equipped with bone spines that run the front length of their dorsal and pectoral fins. Some species have short spines, some longer. Saltwater catfish have serrated spines that bury deep within flesh and resist being pulled out.

Many species also possess a venom which coats the spines. In comparison to other venous organisms such as spider, snakes, and scorpions, catfish venom is admittedly weak — it causes edema, or swelling, at the site of the injury and also acts as an anticoagulant, causing victims to bleed profusely.

Though catfish “stings” are usually innocuous and don’t result in any long-term injury or disability, they do possess the potential to cause problems for some. Infection and the introduction of foreign bodies, heart arrhythmia, respiratory problems, and arterial hypotension are just some of the negative effects possible.

In addition, there’s at least one documented case of a catfish “sting” killing a human. According to a medical case report publish in 2008, a Brazilian fisherman was fishing with friends when he endured a sting to his thorax while trying to heave a net laden with catfish into a boat. The man was not aware he was stung but complained of feeling poorly shortly before slipping beneath the water. Friends in the boat helped save him from drowning by pulling him back up and brought him to shore where he died shortly after. It wasn’t until medical examiners located a small puncture wound in his chest and located the barbed stinger lodged in his heart that anyone understood how the man had passed.

How Should I Handle a Catfish?

Despite the dangers inherent with handling catfish, there are some very simple methods people can employ to protect themselves if they find one on the end of their line.

The first and most important step is to educate oneself on the inherent dangers of coming into contact with catfish. You’ve already made good progress in this regard by reading this article. Still, if you’re planning to fish or swim in a specific area it would be a good idea to do some research to learn about the different species that may inhabit those waters.

The next most important thing a person can do to protect themselves is to know how to handle a catfish. There are several generally accepted “safe” handling methods but we’ll discuss two of the most popular briefly. As you’ve probably guessed, the general rule of thumb is “don’t touch the spines”, but this is easier said than done when you have a fish thrashing around in the water or the bottom of your boat.

The safest method is arguably the lip-grip method. Most catfish lack teeth, instead possessing rough, abrasive pads on the top and bottom of their mouth somewhat similar to a cat’s tongue. Although contact with these pads can cause some discomfort and possibly minor pain — especially if the fish is fighting or thrashing — this is generally considered a preferable trade-off as it completely eliminates any possibility of the fish’s spines making contact with one’s skin. This technique works best on large catfish.

Another tried and proven method is to cup one’s hand and stroke the catfish from front to back, keeping the palm and fingers pressed firmly against the fish’s body, effectively pinning the fins against the fish and ensuring the spines are controlled.

Conclusion: Can Catfish Eat Humans?

Catfish are unarguably dangerous creatures. While it’s true that even the largest catfish couldn’t fit a person in their mouth, their venom-coated bone spines, potentially massive sizes, and territorial behaviors all combine to create a formidable fish.

Knowing how to protect yourself when one inevitably comes into contact with this widespread species is important. Be sure to research the species native to the area you’ll be visiting and practice situational awareness anytime you’ve got one on the line to ensure you keep yourself safe.