Do Robotic Litter Boxes Really Work?

posted: 05/15/12
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Do Robotic Litter Boxes Really Work?
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In an age when nearly everything can be taken care of electronically — from paying bills to parallel parking — it's easy to get used to the convenience of computers performing automated tasks. Consider robotic vacuums, which are becoming increasingly popular because they can automatically roam around the floor sucking up dirt. Such cool inventions have amazing potential to free up our time that we'd much rather spend on other things.

The same goes for robotic litter boxes, which you may have seen advertised as a miracle solution to the unpleasant task of cleaning up after your cat. Sounds amazing, right? Most cat lovers already appreciate that cats are generally cleaner and easier to housebreak than dogs. To eliminate the need to clean up after them every day would be even better. In fact, many manufacturers promise that their product eliminates the bad smells you typically find in a traditional litter box, too. These machines might even encourage more people to adopt cats. But if you've been fooled before by infomercials that promise miracle products, you've learned to be skeptical and believe that when something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

One way to find out if a product really works is to wait and see if it lasts long in the pet stores. For instance, the LitterMaid hit the market in 1997. The fact that it's around more than a decade later and is still being sold is proof to many that it's been successful and really does work. But that doesn't mean it's without drawbacks.

And what about the newer products? There are a variety of automated machines in addition to the LitterMaid that claim to improve on the traditional litter box. They all work differently and might require different levels of maintenance. What they all have in common is that none is perfect. And, like any motorized appliance, they can malfunction.

We'll go over some of the most popular models and what the manufacturers claim they do. But we'll also delve into the various disadvantages of the machines that you'd never know from watching the infomercials.

Before you make the decision to switch to a robotic litter box, remember that every cat is different, and yours might have a preference. One disadvantage to all robotic litter boxes is that some cats are spooked by the sounds and movements of the machines. You should consider the personality of your own cat and decide whether it's curious and adventurous enough to try a robotic litter box without getting spooked. Also, keep in mind that older cats might refuse to accept a new kind of litter box altogether.

And although the machines we'll discuss all have sensors that pretty reliably ensure a cat is gone before it starts a cleaning cycle, this can pose problems. For instance, if you have multiple cats, another cat might come to use a machine while it's set in motion. But if you have adaptable cats that are willing to be patient occasionally, a robotic litter box might be perfect for you.

A relatively simple machine, the LitterMaid is a rectangular box with an enclosed waste receptacle at one end and a sifter that sits at the other end when at rest. After the cat has done its business, the motion sensor will determine it has gone before it triggers the sifter, which travels across the box, picking up the clumpy waste. The sifter also opens the receptacle door and dumps the waste before closing it again and traveling back across the box to the start position, waiting for the next visit.

The LitterMaid is one of the cheaper robotic litter boxes, which is one reason why it's very popular. They also make large versions that are great for bigger cats or multi-cat homes. It also comes with a ramp that collects litter granules from a cat's paws as it climbs down. However, waste clumps that are too large or off to the side have been known to prevent the machine from working properly.

You should also be careful not to fill it too high or too low with litter, because that can confuse the sifter. Some users also complain that if you don't use high-quality litter, it won't dry out well. And be warned that newer models aren't necessarily better. Check user reviews online for individual models, because many people indicate that some don't work as well as the classic models.

Like the LitterMaid, the ScoopFree machine has a sifter that rakes across the litter after the cat has left, depositing waste in an enclosed receptacle at one end. However, the ScoopFree requires even less maintenance than the LitterMaid, because it doesn't require you to refill litter. It uses special trays of crystal litter that work to absorb urine and dry solid waste. The manufacturers claim you only need to replace the trays once every few weeks.

Although it's relatively inexpensive at the outset, one common complaint about the ScoopFree is the high costs of replacing the special litter trays — and the fact that they typically need replacing more often than the manufacturer suggests. Some users have also reported problems with urine leaks. What's most alarming is that some say the silica gel from the special litter can be harmful to the cat or even to a child if accidentally consumed.

One very interesting and nifty gadget is the CatGenie, which actually uses a flushing mechanism similar to a toilet. The bowl of the CatGenie uses washable granules that don't need replacing. Liquid waste simply drips down through the granules to get flushed away later. After the motion sensor has determined that the cat has left, the bowl rotates, allowing the sifter to pick up solid waste. Sanitizing solution mixes with both the liquid and solid waste before they get flushed away (the solid waste is liquefied, too). While this is happening, the machine releases water and sanitizing solution into the bowl with the granules. The bowl rotates and, this time, the sifter works to help clean the granules before a hot air blower allows them to dry.

The CatGenie gets glowing reviews from some users. It does, however, require access to a cold water tap and drain. The CatGenie is the most complicated mechanism of all the popular robotic litter boxes. A very common complaint is that granules get scattered around the machine during the cleaning cycle. It is the lowest maintenance robotic litter box, but only if it works the way it's supposed to. Some users do report significant problems with their CatGenie machines. And instances of malfunction or clogs might require a user to take it apart, which can result in bigger messes and headaches than maintaining a normal litter box.

One of the most unique (and space-age-looking) is the Litter-Robot. At first glance, you’d think it was a kitty-sized escape pod. A cat is supposed to climb up and get inside the mounted, spherical globe to do its business. Using a weight sensor and timer, the machine waits until several minutes after the cat has come and left. Then, the sphere rotates around, allowing the mechanism to sift out clumps of waste and drop only the waste down into the base. The waste collects in an enclosed, removable shelf.

The manufacturers suggest emptying the waste drawer and refilling litter about once a week (if you own just one cat). You can clean the removable globe whenever necessary with soap and water because all of the electronic mechanisms are in the base of the unit.

Because the Litter-Robot is the most funky-looking of the robotic litter boxes and has the most significant mechanical movement, your cat is more likely to be scared and wary of it. The manufacturers have a few recommendations for getting your cat acclimated, however. You might try taking a scoop of litter from the old box and putting it in the Litter-Robot so that your cat recognizes a familiar scent. Also, if you stop cleaning your old litter box, the clean litter in the Litter-Robot will start to seem more attractive.

The Litter-Robot's weight sensor can only detect cats over 5 lbs (about 2.3 kg). You can, however, start the cycle automatically. Also, the space inside is only big enough for cats that aren't overweight or very large. Cats over 15 lbs may not fit comfortably inside the machine. The Litter-Robot Web site also mentions that it might not work well for diabetic cats that leave large litter clumps of urine, because the clumps might not fall through the waste holes.

Users report generally favorable experiences with the Litter-Robot. However, some of the disadvantages users list include noisiness and its large overall size but small interior. It also happens to be one of the more expensive robotic litter boxes.

So, while none of these products is perfect, and some unlucky consumers get stuck with malfunctioning machines, overall, many cat owners love their robotic litter boxes. Just make sure to read the fine print of the return policy.

Omega Paw

An interesting alternative to robotic litter boxes is the Omega Paw. This product isn't entirely self-cleaning because it requires that you roll the box over. But the rolling motion allows it to work similar to the Litter-Robot, as it lets the waste get filtered out into a tray so you can easily dispose of it.


Amazon. "Customer Reviews: CatGenie-Self Washing, Self Flushing Cat Box." (March 8, 2011)

Amazon. "Customer Reviews: LitterMaid LME9000 Elite Mega Advanced Self-Cleaning Litter Box." (March 8, 2011)

Amazon. "Customer Reviews: Litter Robot LRII Automatic Self-Cleaning Litter Box, Beige." (March 8, 2011)

Amazon. "Customer Reviews: ScoopFree Self-Cleaning Litter Box." (March 8, 2011) "Is the Litter-Robot Right for Your Cat?" (March 8, 2011)

Rainbolt, Dusty. "Cat Wrangling Made Easy." Globe Pequot, 2007. (March 8, 2011)

ScoopFree. "How ScoopFree Works." (March 8, 2011)

Thornton, Kim Campbell. "Starting Out Right With Your New Cat." Innova Publishing, 2005. (March 8, 2011)

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