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Automatic Litter Boxes: Taking the Time Out of the Chore

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Who enjoys scooping out a smelly litter box? No one. But your cat depends on you to keep their box clean and smelling fresh. One of the easiest solutions is switching to an automatic litter box. These self-cleaning, robotic options do the work for you. However, they come with a few snags. If you're interested in making the change, read up on all of the information with us first.

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Everyone who looks forward to cleaning the litterbox raise their hand. I’m betting that’s no one. It’s the least-favorite part of cat ownership. But if you skip the chore, you end up with an unhappy feline. (To say nothing of the living situation you create for yourself and your family) Litter boxes come with sharing your life with a beloved cat. And since felines aren’t interested in wielding the litter scoop themselves, that leaves you. But if you’re getting tired of scooping and bagging, there IS a compromise: automatic litter boxes. These nifty robots do the job for you without complaint. And while it sounds like a miracle, make sure you know everything BEFORE you rush to the store. Because there are a few catches.

Feline Bathroom Health

Unlike their canine companions, cats don’t require daily walks to attended to personal needs. By about three-weeks-old, kittens figure out the mechanics of the litter box. And courtesy of their predatory nature, cats bury their waste. It’s an instinct to disguise their presence.

True, some felines are better at the process than others. Everyone has that ONE cat who feels obligated to share their poop smell with the entire world. (And if there’s a logic going on there, no one’s figured it out) Our oldest likes to wait for the most inopportune time to stink up the entire house. (Personally, I think it’s because he gets an over-the-top reaction from my husband)

If you’re working on keeping a dog OUT of the litter box, cleaning up the stinky result gets frustrating. You may not be home or reach the box in time to prevent between-meal “snacking.”

That’s where automatic litter boxes come in handy.

How Automatic Litter Boxes Work

Before you entertain dreams of a tiny robot butler armed with a litter scoop, let’s go over the actual mechanics. Automatic litter boxes (also known as self-cleaning litter boxes) follow the same basic principles.

First, you’re going to need some form of clumping litter. Rarely will you find a self-cleaning box out there that doesn’t operate with clumping litter. (And when it does, you’ll need to use a special litter designed specifically for that unit)

Automatic litter boxes have a plate in the floor that detects weight. As your cat steps in, it “wakes” the system up. Sensors then tell the machine when your cat is out of the box.

Rakes collect the soiled litter. The clumps then go into a sealed receptacle, so the odor stays OUT of the house.

One (the CatGenie) is connected to a water supply and WASHES the entire system. A little more sanitizing but also stranger for your cat to cope with. (It’s also poorly-reviewed and NOT recommended here)

When the holding container is full, you bag it up and walk it out to the trash. (Sorry, but the robot won’t do that part for you)

The Quandary Posed by Automatic Litter Boxes

Sounds awesome, right? You don’t have to scoop anything. Plus, messes get cleaned up right away, preventing any wafting odors from sneaking through the house. You gain time otherwise spent on this admittedly-stinky chore.

But cats? They’re NOT always fans of automatic litter boxes. Switching from a manual operation to a robot means taking risks with your feline’s bathroom facilities. If ANYTHING goes wrong, you could end up with a cat deciding they want to choose a new spot to take “care of business.” And you probably won’t like the result.

Automatic Litter Box Size

A litter box is supposed to be at least as long as your cat (nose to tail). While automatic litter boxes certainly pack on the bulk, the actual BED of the box always comes up short. (And, yes, that means EVERY one on this list)

That’s fine for smaller cats, but what if you have a larger breed of cat? Imagine how you’d feel squeezing into a miniature Port-a-Potty all the time.

Also, these self-cleaning robots have a weight threshold. If your cat (or, more likely, your kitten) weighs under five pounds, they can’t trip that plate. No matter how often they use the litter box, it won’t clean. It’s not the system failing; it’s that the setting won’t work on bitty kitties.

Automatic Litter Box Sound

You make noise when you scoop a litter box. (If you’re anything like my husband or me, you mutter a lot) However, the decibel level is low (this is how sound is measured). The chore doesn’t bother your cat if they’re in the vicinity. And, face it, cats like to wait for you to finish so they can hop right in.

Automatic litter boxes are NOT quiet. Even the softest in the bunch measures 50 decibels. For comparison, that’s about how loud an average household conversation gets. Pretty loud for a cat where their bathroom’s concerned. And most machines are LOUDER. (This is one of the reasons people hate the CatGenie, in case you wondered)

Automatic Litter Box Malfunction

You’re picking up an automatic litter box to focus your mind on other concerns. You trust it to clean without a problem. That’s a lot of responsibility for a robot. And self-cleaning boxes aren’t INTELLIGENT robots (there’s no AI).

Sometimes, the rakes kick on before the sensor gives the “all clear.” Other times, conveyor belts jam. And you’re talking a lot of moving parts – something your cat’s never experienced with their bathroom. It can scare them. And something that frightens them may convince them the new addition isn’t worth using.

Choosing an Automatic Litter Box

Does that mean you need to give up on automatic litter boxes? Of course not. Should you keep those thoughts tucked in the back of your mind? Absolutely. You dislike scooping a stinky box, but you also care about your cat. There’s a happy medium in there. And with some key features on your checklist, you can find a self-cleaning litter box that will work for everyone.

  • Expense: You WILL save time, but money? Probably not. Many automatic litter boxes require special cat litter. Then you need to pay for maintenance. And if a part breaks? Make sure you’re checking ALL of the additional costs when you make this switch.
  • Smooth Operation: Obviously, you’d love an automatic litter box that never jammed. However, clumping litter tends to jam. And rakes don’t help the situation. Your best bet is to stay on top of cleaning and maintenance.
  • Timing: Do you hate waiting in line for the bathroom? So does your cat. Some of these robots need 30 or 60 minutes to clean! Your cat isn’t going to wait – they’ll go elsewhere.
  • Quiet: You don’t want to listen to a rocket taking off in the next room, and neither does your cat. Look for the quietest automatic litter box you can find.
  • Litter Type: Will your cat tolerate a change in litter type? You want the robot to do the work, but if your cat HATES crystals or pellets? It won’t do you much good when they avoid the self-cleaning box.
  • Health Monitoring: When you scoop a litter box, you see what’s going on: if urination increases, whether’s there’s diarrhea, etc. You need that capability now that you’re NOT holding the scoop. Look for counters, color indicators, or other helpers, so you don’t miss important clues.

Switching to an Automatic Litter Box

Now that you’ve installed an automatic little box, you need to “explain” to your cat that it isn’t a mechanical invader. (Don’t worry, it’s easier than it sounds) It’ll take a little time, but you can make the switch with some patience.

  1. Leave the self-cleaning box OFF. (Your cat doesn’t need a heart attack the first time they use it)
  2. Transfer a scoop of the old litter into the new box. Cats have a good sense of smell, and the transfer will assure them the new robot is familiar.
  3. Once your cat starts using the automatic litter box, plug it in. But DON’T remove the old box yet – you might need it.
  4. Gradually, stop cleaning the old box. Cats are fastidious. And given a choice between dirty and clean, they’ll move to the fresh option.
  5. Once they’re consistently using the new box, you can remove the old one.

Stay on top of emptying the receptacle and maintenance, so the automatic litter box remains fresh and operating. Then your cat won’t consider looking for their old litter box.

The Best Automatic Litter Boxes

Automatic litter boxes work for a lot of people. You don’t have to bend down as often. The machine stays on top of the cleaning process. And even if your schedule changes, the robot remains consistent and on-track. It’s a helpful tool – if it works for your situation. You may want to hold onto that old familiar litter box, though, just in case. You never know when you’ll need a back-up.

No one’s going to deny the ChillX looks like something from the future. The cover’s designed to help reduce the dust you often cope with when you switch to clumping litter. Once your cat leaves, a rake goes to work. The clumps dump into a waste drawer you can line with their biodegradable liners OR recycled grocery bags (neither’s a bad option). You don’t need a special clumping litter, and the entire system dismantles pretty easily for the deep-cleaning process. Best of all, you get a 30-day money-back guarantee and a one-year warranty.

Downsides? If your cat weighs more than 15 pounds, they’ll never fit inside. You CAN remove the dome, but it’s still on the small side. The rakes also miss a fair amount of the box, meaning you STILL need to do some scooping. And while the ChillX site claims the waste drawer holds a week’s worth of waste, many people found the truth to be closer to a few days – and the rake failed to miss most of the box.

The Good

The Bad

LitterMaid is a name most people recognize. And they follow a pretty standard design for automatic litter boxes. An attached rake scoops the waste into the receptacle. You also get the benefits of high walls to contain litter “spray,” charcoal filters to help with odor control, and a paw-cleaning ramp to prevent litter from escaping. And if you have a multi-cat household, they have a larger version to help with the extra bathroom burden.

The downsides? The high sides tempt people to overfill this box, leading to dust blocking the sensors. And while it needs clumping litter, the resulting clumps usually clog the rake mechanism, requiring you to clean things out. It’s also one of the louder models out there, something your cat WON’T appreciate.

The Good

The Bad

When you think “automatic litter boxes,” you probably think along the lines of the Litter-Robot 3. This little space capsule provides an open chamber that also minimizes litter-tracking. When the robot detects your cat leaving, it ROTATES to sift the waste into the collection drawer in the bottom. It’s one of the quickest machines out there. You can also connect it to your smartphone to track your cat’s usage, giving you an idea of health.

So what are the downsides? It looks like a space capsule and sounds like one. At 55 decibels, it’s equivalent to a paper scanner. And while the waste drawer is one of the biggest out there, the litter pan itself isn’t. You have to stay on top of that drawer, too: if too much waste builds up, the robot STOPS! Not to mention that it comes with a hefty price tag AND additional costs. You’ll want to look at everything involved before splurging.

The Good

The Bad

Nature’s Miracle works along the same lines as LitterMaid. You get the same cleaning process, with the same features (though with that Nature’s Miracle touch to help with unwanted odors). You also get a built-in LED light in case you have senior cats that need help finding their way in the evening hours. (Or in case you want to avoid tripping over the box) Once again, you can also find a multi-cat option to help out if you have several cats using the same automatic litter box.

Downsides? You CAN use any clumping litter. However, for the best results, you should use Nature’s Miracle super-absorbent litter. That prevents the worst jams from causing problems with the rakes. Which means you have to spend a little more. You’ll have to decide if you’re willing to put up with clearing the mechanism or not. And, as with LitterMaid, it’s on the loud side.

The Good

The Bad

PetSafe provides two different options when it comes to automatic litter boxes. Their ScoopFree is one of the most popular on the market, as YOU decide when the cleaning cycle starts. You can choose from 5, 10, or 15 minutes – an option that works great if you have senior cats that need more time to exit the box. A sensor logs the number of visits made, giving you a way to monitor the health of your feline. And at 50 decibels, it’s the quietest self-cleaner you’ll find.

The downsides? You MUST use their disposable trays to line the bottom of the litter box., as well as PetSafe’s Crystal Litter. Cats don’t always like the silica gel. And if they’re determined scratchers (you know the type – they head for the center of the Earth when they’re in the box), your cat can scratch THROUGH the cardboard, causing leaks. The Crystal Litter will NOT work with cats who have Diabetes or kidney issues; it can’t absorb that much liquid. This means you should also avoid this automatic litter box if you have multiple cats in the house.

The Good

The Bad

The PetSafe Simply Clean utilizes a conveyor system to keep your cat’s litter box fresh at all times. The rakes move through the box to remove any waste, moving it into the waste receptacle every hour. You don’t need any fancy liners or bags, either – recycled grocery bags work just fine. The high sides keep litter from spilling out, and an LED display lets you know the status of the receptacle.

So what are the downsides? This is a SMALL automatic litter box. Your cat needs to weigh less than 15 pounds to fit inside. And because the conveyor system runs all the time, the motor tends to burn out FAST. Plus, it takes that full HOUR to finish cleaning! No cat wants to wait that long for the facilities. You can also see clumping in the sifter, depending on the quality of the litter you use.

The Good

The Bad

Pet Zone follows the standard automatic litter box design but with angled fins to keep those pesky litter clumps INSIDE the box. They also use filters with carbon zeolite to help minimize odors. The high sides prevent litter from getting kicked everywhere. When your cat finishes, a smart sensor triggers the cleaning cycle. The kit includes a month’s supply of plastic bags for the waste container, too.

Downsides? Unhappily, the rakes don’t reach all the way to the bottom. So you’re going to have to do some scraping. (Luckily, it’s easy to disassemble) The motor tends to struggle, even without a lot of use. And if you have multiple cats in the house, you’ll need to clean out the waste drawer every other day – NOT every week.

The Good

The Bad

Robot Bathrooms

No one’s ever going to enjoy cleaning out a litter box. This is why the pet industry will continue to work on better and better automatic litter boxes. And if your cat doesn’t mind the noise and movement in their bathroom, it’s a great option. Self-cleaning litter boxes help LOTS of people with this stinky chore. And if you work with your cat over time, they get used to the presence of a robot in their personal space.

Technology advances a little more every day. We may even see a day where automatic litter boxes become silent AND take the bag out to the trash for us! (It could happen!)

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Andria Kennedy

Andria Kennedy

Andria Kennedy worked as a Licensed Veterinary Technician for 10 years, focusing on Emergency/ICU and later Cardiology, as well as volunteering at both the Philadelphia Zoo and Virginia Living Museum for over six years. She's now a freelance writer, but she gravitates toward writing projects with a focus on animals (once an animal-lover, always an animal-lover). She lives in Virginia with her husband, three cats (one "works" as her personal assistant), and a Greyhound who thinks she's a big cat — all of them rescues.

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