A High-Tech Litter Box Could Be in Your Cat's Future

But is an automatic poop disposal worth hundreds of dollars?

By Sarah Jacobsson Purewal

Scooping used kitty litter from a litter box is nobody's idea of fun—but would you pay hundreds of dollars to have a robotic litter box do the job for you?

Automatic self-cleaning litter boxes are designed to rake and rotate your cat's waste into an odor-proof compartment. It's a win-win situation for you and your cat: You don't have to scoop out the litter box daily in order to keep it in tip-top shape, and your picky feline doesn't have to deal with icky stuff on his paws. On the other hand, although scooping litter is tedious, it's not especially difficult—and sequestering poop in an odor-proof compartment doesn't mean that it won't stink up that compartment.

We tested three automatic self-cleaning litter boxes—each using a different method to remove and hide away waste—head to head to head, to see if they were worth the price of admission.

Litter-Robot III Open Air

The Litter-Robot III Open Air litter box is the "last litter box you'll ever buy," according to the company's website. And you can be forgiven for thinking that it had better last, considering that it costs a whopping $449.

The Litter-Robot III Open Air features a large, rotating, sphere-shaped litter chamber atop a sturdy pedestal. The box is massive—the base measures approximately 25 inches wide by 27 inches deep, and the contraption is about 30 inches tall—so the pedestal includes a built-in step to help your cat ascend the throne. The Litter-Robot cleans itself by rotating the litter chamber 360 degrees; the chamber uses a screen to sieve out clean litter before depositing clumps of waste in a bag-lined drawer at the bottom of the pedestal. After dumping the waste, the unit redeposits clean litter in the litter chamber. The cleaning process occurs after each use, operating on an adjustable timer (3 minutes, 5 minutes, 7 minutes, or 15 minutes after the cat exits the chamber).

We had two cats in Mar Vista, California, try out the Litter-Robot III Open Air, and they're still warming up to it--after a couple of weeks with the Litter-Robot, they've used it only once. These cats had been using a pellet system prior to the Litter-Robot (the Litter-Robot works only with clumping litter and/or litter beads and crystals that are small enough to pass through the screen), so for them the switch was a pretty big one. The cats aren’t afraid of the Litter-Robot, even though it moves and makes noises (the Litter-Robot does whir to life when it performs the cleaning process, but it's not excessively loud), but they're hesitant to make the leap from sitting in it to unburdening themselves in it.

The Litter-Robot III Open Air litter box works as advertised—self-cleaning after every use and keeping the litter chamber clean and olfactory-friendly—but it's not the ultimate litter box solution you might be hoping for with that kind of monetary investment. The company recommends emptying the litter drawer at least every 7 to 10 days in a one-cat household, but the drawer gets smelly far before a week is up. And because the Litter-Robot cleans out the clumps by rotating them along the inside of the chamber, there's a big potential for messiness inside the chamber (which means that you'll have to clean the interior of the chamber pretty regularly to keep the chamber sterile).

The Litter-Robot III Open Air has a unique look, but that doesn't mean that it’s especially attractive. The outer surface’s bisque color gives it a dated look, like a gigantic robotic eyeball from a 1960s sci-fi movie, rather than the sleek high-tech litter box it is.

PetSafe ScoopFree Ultra Self-Cleaning Litter Box

PetSafe's ScoopFree Ultra Self-Cleaning litter box looks less like HAL’s unblinking camera eye and more like a typical litter box. It’s rectangular, with a hood and no major moving parts. This $180 litter box doesn't rotate or spin, it simply rakes the litter to keep the clumps away.

The ScoopFree Ultra Self-Cleaning litter box is part of PetSafe's ScoopFree system. It uses disposable ScoopFree litter box trays filled with litter crystals that last for approximately one month (for a one-cat household). Instead of buying litter, you purchase these trays, which cost $20 apiece. The ScoopFree Ultra is the same litter box as the ScoopFree Original, except that it includes a translucent plastic privacy hood that helps reduce litter tracking.

The ScoopFree Ultra Self-Cleaning litter box cleans itself by using a stainless steel rake that rakes across the entire surface of the box, depositing any clumps of waste into a covered compartment at the end of the box. The cleaning process happens after each use, triggered by an adjustable timer (5 minutes, 10 minutes, or 20 minutes after the cat has left the box). Once the waste compartment is full—after approximately 20 to 30 days for one cat—you simply throw away the disposable litter tray and install a new one.

We had two cats at a Sun Valley rescue try out the ScoopFree Ultra Self-Cleaning litter box. One (a younger female) took to it immediately, while the other (a senior male) wanted nothing to do with it. Like most robotic litter boxes, the ScoopFree Ultra moves and makes noises, but our tester reported that it's not very loud.

The ScoopFree system makes litter cleanup just about as easy as it can be--you don't even have to throw out the waste, you just toss out the whole tray. But the convenience comes at a price: $20 per tray (though you can find them for less if you buy in bulk). This is significantly more expensive than purchasing bags of regular litter. The ScoopFree Ultra Self-Cleaning litter box works well for people who don't want to scoop litter at all, though it's not completely maintenance-free; the thin stainless steel rake doesn't always catch every bit of waste, and the company recommends mixing the litter daily to reduce odors.

The ScoopFree Ultra Self-Cleaning litter box isn't the sexiest litter box on the block, but it's not an eyesore as litter boxes go. Aesthetically, it's on a par with other hooded litter boxes, though it is slightly large—30 inches wide by 20 inches deep, and about 12 inches tall.

PetSafe Simply Clean Automatic Litter Box

PetSafe's Simply Clean Automatic litter box is a bit different from the other two litter boxes we tested. Instead of using a sensor to automatically clean the premises after the cat leaves the box, the $100 Simply Clean rotates constantly at a snail's pace—no sudden movements, and an always-clean box.

The litter container rotates constantly at a very slow pace (it completes one full rotation every hour), moving the waste clumps onto a notched conveyor belt that transports the clumps up and away into a waste container. The conveyor belt and the waste container are covered to reduce odor. The Simply Clean Automatic litter box is always moving, even when your cat is using it, but it's so slow and quiet that our tester cat had no problem adapting to the box immediately. If you have a particularly sensitive cat, however, the Simply Clean box may not be a good choice.

We arranged for a cat in Pasadena to check out the Simply Clean Automatic litter box, and she took to it immediately. We placed the litter box on concrete, and the movement caused a very quiet, low hum that didn't seem to bother her at all. We suspect that if we had put a mat or a scrap of carpet under the Simply Clean, it wouldn’t have made any sound at all.

The Simply Clean Automatic litter box's conveyor belt is an interesting idea that seems to work fairly well, though the conveyor belt has little spikes to trap the clumps and therefore could get very messy. The fact that the litter box is always moving is a plus, because there are no sudden, loud movements that might scare off timid cats. The main issue with the Simply Clean is that it doesn't have a cover or a hood, and because it's always moving, some of the litter may spill out or be tracked out by the cat.

The Simply Clean Automatic litter box looks a little weird—it’s a bit reminiscent of a mixing bowl. Because of its odd shape, it's won’t fit into a corner easily, but at least it's not too large: 26 inches wide by 19 inches deep, and approximately 10 inches tall.

Photo credits: Litter-Robot, PetSafe.