How Do Self-Cleaning Litter Boxes Work?

Updated Apr. 6, 2022

Image via Mary Swift/Shutterstock

The Convenience of the Automatic Litter Box

By Lorie Huston, DVM

Self-cleaning, or automatic, cat litter boxes are a great choice for cat owners who have limited time to clean litter boxes. There are many different types of self-cleaning litter boxes available. Though they do have differences, they also have some similarities.

Waste, Sensors and Self-Cleaning

Most self-cleaning litter boxes have a rake that moves across and through the cat litter, sifting out and removing waste from the box. The waste is normally deposited into a receptacle of some type at one end of the litter box. The receptacle is then closed to hold in the odors until the waste can be removed.

You're also likely to find a sensor that is set off when a cat enters and leaves on most self-cleaning litter boxes. The sensor usually sets a timer which causes the rake to move across the litter box and clean the mess after a specific amount of time has passed since the cat left the box. Have no fear, though; most self-cleaning litter boxes have a fail safe that prevents the rake from moving while there is a cat in the box, regardless of whether another cat has just exited the box.

Picking the Right Type of Litter for the Self-Cleaning Litter Box

When using a self-cleaning litter box, it is important to read the directions that accompany the product. For instance, some automatic cat litter boxes do require a specific type of litter; some require clumping cat litter, some require crystals. Use the type of litter specified for the self-cleaning litter box you have purchased. Failing to do so may result in the automatic cleaning cycle not being performed properly.

There will also be directions about how much litter to use in the box. Again, follow the directions for the product you are using. Using a self-cleaning litter box as directed will help ensure that the product continues to work properly for you.

Acclimating to the Self-Cleaning Litter Box

Self-cleaning litter boxes run on a power source. Some are battery operated, some are powered by electricity and some provide both options. Because self-cleaning cat litter boxes have a motor that is responsible for pulling the rake through the litter and cleaning the box, there is a noise that is audible when the box is in the cleaning cycle. For some cats, this may be upsetting and it may take some time and patience for your cat to become used to the box. On rare occasions, cats may refuse to use an automatic litter box at all.

As with a regular litter box, choosing a litter box that is large enough for your cat is important. Whether to get a box with or without a hood is another choice. Litter boxes that do not use hoods may provide an advantage for some cats.

To acclimate your cat to an automatic litter box, place a small amount of waste (i.e., cat feces and/or urine) taken from another litter box into the self-cleaning box. This may encourage your cat to use the new box. If your cat is easily frightened, it is advisable to leave the self-cleaning litter box powered down for a day or two until your cat is entering and using the box on a regular basis. Once your cat is comfortable using the litter box, you can turn the power on and let the box cycle through its cleaning process, observing how your cat reacts.

Image: Imageman / via Shutterstock


Lorie Huston, DVM


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