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Automatic Litter Boxes Work For Many Cats (Just Not Mine)

I introduced my cat to an automatic litter box and let’s just say it went off with multiple hitches.

by Charles Manning | expert review by Cristin Tamburo, CFTBS, CAFTP
November 11, 2021
A cat walking by a little box
Courtesy of Litter Robot

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I love my senior cat, Pumpkin, more than just about anything, but his litter box kind of sucks. It’s not a traditional litter box; those are too small for him. It’s more of a litter crate — a three-foot-long, 18”-high plastic storage bin that requires an entire 32-lb bag of World’s Best cat litter to fill — and has to be cleaned at least twice a day or Pumpkin might pee on the bed (sometimes, with me in it).

I’d seen automatic litter boxes before, but they were all so ugly and seemed like they would be a nightmare to clean. Also, they’re expensive and I just couldn’t imagine spending that much money on something my cat poops in. And yet, the idea of not having to scoop the litter box every time I entered the bathroom was very appealing. 

“Typically, I am not a fan of automatic litter boxes — some cats do well with them, but many are afraid of them and it can be a difficult transition,” says cat behaviorist Cristin Tamburo. “While they are quite large on the outside (and take up space in the home), the area where cats go is actually quite small and can make many cats uncomfortable. In all the cases I’ve worked on, I’ve only recommended an automatic litter box once. It was one of those rare cases where the cat would not use the box if it had any ‘deposits’ in it. It had to be pristine or the cat would go somewhere else in the home. Obviously the cat’s parents couldn’t be home to scoop the box after every use, so we implemented an automatic litter box and it actually did the trick!” Of course, having already decided that I wanted to try an automatic litter box, all I took from Tamburo’s story were four words: “it did the trick!”

So, being an all-or-nothing kind of person (and a bit bougie), I got my hands on the fanciest automatic litter box I could find: the Litter Robot 3 Connect by Whisker. At $550, it’s pretty much the Mercedes-Benz of automatic litter boxes. I set it up beside his existing litter box and let him sniff it out and get used to it for a few days before I plugged it in. Then I watched him watch it run through a cleaning cycle. So far, so good. He wasn’t scared of it, but he didn’t seem particularly keen on giving it a try either. I put a little of his old litter inside the chamber and even sprayed the machine with catnip to try to entice him. Finally, I stopped cleaning his old litter box, hoping that this would compel him to at least try our new high-tech toy. 

For two and a half days, he fouled his litter crate until the whole thing was just one big urine clump dotted with turds. I kept him out of my room for the sake of my mattress, but I was starting to miss our nap-time cuddles, so, on the afternoon of the third day, I decided it was time to end our little experiment. Also, watching him climb into his overflowing litter box 10 times a day (he goes to the bathroom a lot) was breaking my heart. I was too late, though. When I got home from running errands, Pumpkin was sitting on the couch beside a pee stain the size of a large pizza. F*ck. I busted out the vinegar and spent the next two hours cleaning the couch before replacing the litter in Pumpkin’s original box.

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Just because the Litter Robot didn’t work for Pumpkin, it didn’t mean it couldn’t work for someone else. A representative from the company told me that 96% of cats who try the Litter Robot successfully transition and end up using it exclusively. So I gifted it to a friend with two cats of her own, who not only love peeing in it, but also playing in it! My friend is pretty happy with it too — there is zero smell and she only needs to clean out the poop trap once every week or two.

“To ensure a cat will use the litter box (any box), it should be as comfortable and easy for them to use as possible,” says Tamburo. “In my opinion, bigger is always better when it comes to litter boxes. Ideally, they should be at least one and a half times the size of the cat, and your cat should be able to easily maneuver and turn around without having to play Twister.” Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have messed with Pumpkin’s litter situation to begin with. He’s almost 15 years old and even if he had taken to the Litter Robot, he has medical issues that require him to wear a cone from time to time, which would have made maneuvering inside the egg-shaped chamber difficult, if not impossible.

Tamburo adds, “Most cats prefer open boxes without lids — especially in multi-cat homes — to prevent ambushes. And many cats can be quite particular about litter depth and litter type, [so the fact that a lot of] automatic boxes are only compatible with certain types of litters [is problematic]. The noises and movements made when the boxes self-clean can also startle many cats. If a cat gets startled or has a bad experience in whatever type of litter box they’re using, it can lead to litter box aversion, causing them to start going outside the box.”

“Additionally, a cat’s bathroom habits can tell us a lot about their overall health,” says Tamburo. “Being able to monitor their ‘outputs’ via daily scooping is a good way to keep an eye on your cat’s health. While some of the boxes do have apps that help with some sense of monitoring, it’s not quite the same. Lastly, while automatic boxes can be less work on a daily basis, they still require maintenance and can be even more difficult to clean — especially if your cat has GI issues.”

Still, if, like me, you really want to give it a shot, Tamburo has some pro tips: “Anything we do with cats should be done in small, incremental steps — at a pace that a cat is comfortable with. Moving too quickly or forcing anything on a cat generally backfires. The box should be as close to the current litter box location as possible, and you should leave it there for as long as it takes for your cat to adjust to the automatic box. When possible, use the same type of litter. And every time you see your cat using the new, automatic box, the behavior should be rewarded with treats, praise, pets or whatever your particular cat finds rewarding.”

Of course, if your cat really doesn’t take to it, one of the good things about Litter Robot in particular is that you can return it within 90 days for a full refund. Because look, some cats, like my friend’s, love it. Others, not so much. And anyone who has a cat knows there is no convincing them to do something they simply do not want to do. Even if it would make your life so much easier. 

Charles Manning

Charles Manning is an actor, writer, and fashion/media consultant living in New York City with his two cats, Pumpkin and Bear. Follow him on Instagram @charlesemanning.