Is a Self-Cleaning Litter Box Really Less Work?

By PetMD Editorial. Reviewed by Jennifer Coates, DVM on Jan. 10, 2019

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By Kathy ­Blumenstock

It's the least favorite part of cat parenting: cleaning the cat litter box. Kitty, can you please DIY? Until that happens, the emergence of self-cleaning litter boxes for cats creates an option to have the litter box itself clean up after your cat.

But are these self-cleaning litter boxes for cats really less work? With multiple styles and designs—including an actual flush-it-away system from CatGenie—and ever-updating versions, there are plenty of options for you to choose from to find the perfect match for you and your cat.

Our 411 on self-cleaning litter boxes for cats lets you think outside the traditional cat litter box to decide if an automatic litter box is worth it.

The Basics of the Self-Cleaning Litter Box

With a self-cleaning litter box, a waste compartment sifts, rakes, flushes or otherwise collects feline waste, allowing you minimal contact with cat urine and feces and eliminating the need to scoop the litter tray daily. Most of the automatic litter boxes detect when your cat has used it and will clean up so that the next time they go, they have fresh, clean cat litter.

Yody Blass of Companion Animal Behavior in Leesburg, Virginia, says the concept of a self-cleaning litter box is “a great one, because no one likes to clean litter boxes. It goes along with owning a cat, similar to walking a dog or cleaning a ferret's cage.”

Blass says that for cat parents working long hours or overnight shifts, or for those with an illness or disability, a self-cleaning litter box can be very helpful. They are also a helpful option for cats who want a clean litter box each time.

“To get our cats to be consistent in using a box, we need to clean it daily—even multiple times a day—a challenging task with long work days and plenty to do at home. If the box gets overlooked in some busy households, that can create inappropriate elimination issues,” Blass says, adding that an automatic litter box can help to alleviate that problem.

However, if the words “automatic litter box” create a mental picture of a work-free zone, delete that picture! An automatic litter box still means some work, although it will differ from your current litter box routine. Automatic litter boxes will require you to empty out a tray or compartment that holds the sifted cat waste as well as replace or replenish the cat litter for the box to function.

Making the Shift to an Automatic Litter Box for Your Cat

All automatic litter boxes require a transition period. “It is almost always a process to get a cat used to an automatic litter box,” says Blass. “There is a learning curve for humans as well, to fill the litter to the correct amount, check on it regularly, troubleshoot issues, etc. “

She says when first setting it up, “I always recommend keeping the unit unplugged or in ‘off’ mode until the cat is using it regularly.” While making that switch, Blass recommends keeping a traditional litter box nearby “until the cat shows a clear preference for the automatic box.”

What Are the Best Self-Cleaning Litter Boxes?

Finding the best automatic cat litter box for your cat requires finding a balance between the features you want and what your cat is comfortable with. Some cats might be deterred or spooked by loud noises, so a litter box that’s designed to operate quietly or delay raking until the cat is long gone may be better. Other cats may prefer extra space, so you will need to look for an automatic litter box that is extra roomy.

If you have a kitten, you’ll need to wait. Manufacturers state that automatic litter boxes are made for cats older than 6 months. Blass agrees, citing kittens’ petite size—“They may be too lightweight for the sensors or too small to climb into some units, or may even eat the litter.”

Sifting Cat Litter Box Option

If you prefer not to have to scoop waste at all, a sifting cat litter box system may be your best choice. There are those that are automatic and those that require you to pull a lever.

The PetSafe Simply Clean automatic litter box has a conveyor-belt system that continually sifts through cat litter to keep the litter box fresh and clean. As the litter bowl rotates, the waste is sifted into a waste container lined with a trash bag that you can toss out every other day or when nearly full.

This conveyor-belt system has no visible moving parts and is extra quiet, so it can be used with wary or skittish cats. The PetSafe Simply Clean litter box system is also an option for cats who prefer a certain type of litter because it is compatible with any clumping, scoopable cat litter.

Blass says it works well for both urine and feces and is quieter than most other automatic litter box models. However, she believes it is too small for cats over 12 pounds and is not the best choice for cats that may spray in their boxes. She has also found that it might require more of an effort to clean, which is necessary, even with automatic litter boxes.

For bigger cats and those who might spray, Blass likes the CatIt Design SmartSift sifting cat pan. This self-cleaning litter box has ample space (26 by 19 by 24.8 inches) to accommodate a larger cat or multiple cats. The CatIt system also does not require electricity to function, which makes it convenient for cat owners who don’t want their litter box placement dictated by outlet locations.

To clean this litter box, you simply pull the lever, and the litter box shifts to sift and deposit clumps into the waste bin. The CatIt Design SmartSift litter box also offers a cover with a removable swinging door and carbon filter for odor control.

This system works with the litter of your choice and uses unscented Catit Design SmartSift biodegradable replacement liners, which prevents waste from sticking to the bin. The waste compartment can hold a two-week waste load, and the liner bags are made from eco-friendly materials that will degrade more efficiently when disposed of.

Automatic Litter Boxes With Sweeping Function

If you prefer the hands-off approach, you can also try a sweeping option such as the ScoopFree original automatic litter box. The automatic raking system sweeps waste into a covered compartment 20 minutes after your cat has used the box. It also has safety sensors to detect if your cat returns to the box, and it will automatically reset.

This automatic litter box system uses ScoopFree premium blue crystal cat litter trays that are intended to last approximately 30 days. The trays use dye-free silicon crystal cat litter that absorbs urine and dries solid waste.

Blass likes the ScoopFree system because of its ability to keep litter scatter to a minimum. She calls this a good choice for a single-cat home but notes that the crystal litter does not clump, so it’s up to the pad underneath the litter to deodorize the urine. The litter tray must be changed often, or else the box may smell after less than a week, and cats may look for “somewhere else to eliminate.”

Another raking-style box is the Pet Zone Smart Scoop automatic cat litter box, which rakes the litter, collecting clumps and depositing them into a waste compartment with a carbon filter that neutralizes odors. The system uses any clumping or crystal litter. Blass says that while the rake does not always grab all the litter clumps, it is sturdy and comes apart smoothly for cleaning. She also likes the unit’s quieter motor. 

A Self-Cleaning Litter Box That Flushes

An automatic litter box system that Blass calls “pure genius” is the flushing box by CatGenie. The CatGenie self-flushing cat box scoops away, liquifies and flushes feline waste out of your home. The cat bowl is filled with CatGenie washable granules that are made from natural and synthetic biodegradable materials.

They are litter-like in shape, “so your cat will be able to dig his claws in and cover up as they instinctively do,” says Avery Hand, marketing director of CatGenie. She explains, “It works with the water supply in your home, and you can hook it up yourself, using your bathroom or laundry room; no need for a plumber.” She adds that her own cat Morty easily adapted to a CatGenie, and the company’s resident office cat is an on-site daily user.

In addition to the self-washing granules, you will also need the CatGenie SaniSolution SmartCartridge, which is used to clean the granules and the bowl. Hand says the granules are virtually dust-free, and all you need to do is replenish them—you don’t need to replace them. The 30-minute cleaning cycle can be reset if necessary. She also says that one CatGenie system can accommodate up to three cats.

Blass likes the CatGenie’s sturdy quality and says that it keeps its self-cleaning promise “because it’s flushable and waste is removed from the house via the drain pipe.”

Blass does caution that “because it is noisy, it’s not good for skittish cats. And some cats will refuse to use it.” Hand agrees that “some cats don’t take to it, but we have a 92-93 percent adaptation rate, so with the thousands of cats that have tried it, that’s a good product review.”

A Hybrid, Partly Self-Cleaning Litter Box Option

If you’re not quite ready for an automatic litter box, you can try a litter box that still does some of the work for you. For example, the Tidy Cats Breeze cat litter box system uses a system of pellets and pads to collect cat waste for easy disposal. The Tidy Cats Breeze cat litter pellets are poured into a tray that is suspended above the Tidy Cats Breeze cat pad.

The 99.9 percent dust-free litter pellets trap and dehydrate solid waste while letting the urine pass through onto the absorbent, odor-controlling pads. The solid waste can then be scooped up, and you will need to replace the pads underneath. This does save you from having to scrape the sides of the litter tray to collect the soiled cat litter.

“The ease of the Tidy Breeze system is what makes it a practical choice,” says C.J. Campeau, brand manager for Tidy Cats. “You scoop solid waste daily, change the super-absorbent pad weekly and replace the anti-tracking, dehydrating pellets monthly.”

The original Breeze model did not have a hood. “When we heard that some of the cats wanted the added privacy of a hooded system, we asked experts to help us create it,” says Campeau. “Cat parents can now pick the hooded or sidewall system that best meets their cat’s needs.” If your cat prefers a more private litter box experience, you can look into trying the Tidy Cats Breeze hooded cat litter box system.

Blass likes the hooded system because it has “weighted pellets that do not come out of the box as easily as lighter litters; if you hate cat litter tracking around the house, this is for you.” She says it is not for cats that spray or lift their hind ends while in the box.

Blass reminds cat parents that even if we may long for the ease of a self-cleaning litter box, our felines may not agree. You have to keep your cat’s overall comfort and happiness in mind when deciding on whether or not to make the switch. “I have four cats of my own, and two of them like the automatic litter box; two of them do not,” she says. “The one who needs to always have a clean box uses the self-cleaning box, so that has helped our situation.”

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