Allegedly, the first design for an automatic litter box was patented in 1991. Of course, they haven’t been a casual thing to have in your house for that long.

But if you’ve recently seen the Death Star-looking ones that often go viral on TikTok, like the $649, 2.5-foot tall Litter Robot, you might be wondering: Is a practical self-cleaning litter box too much to ask?

PetSafe says nope. Its ScoopFree automatic self-cleaning litter boxes, which range from $169.95 to $229.95, have been around since the late 2010s. Their physical design, a more plain, average box shape, doesn’t produce the hype online that the futuristic ones do. But the advantage is still clear to any cat parent who’s dealing with a confined space or tighter budget.

Aside from when my cat, Sansa, was a kitten and had a bathroom schedule of questionable consistency, I don’t totally mind the actual act of scooping the litter box. But the reality of the filth is much more noticeable in small apartments, especially if you live with someone who’s not as used to the litter box process — and especially especially if you’re going to ask them to babysit on occasion.

I tried the non-app connected second generation PetSafe ScoopFree litter box to see if the small splurge could really transform my cat care routine in a small space.

This ScoopFree is actually a decent option for limited floor space

It’s abundantly clear that apartments do not design bathrooms with cat owners (who can’t put the litter box in the common area) in mind. The litter-box-in-the-bathroom arrangement typically takes some Tetris-level arranging and often rule hooded litter boxes out, as well as the massive egg-shaped automatic litter boxes that you’re probably picturing. I appreciate that PetSafe kept this ScoopFree design traditional to extend automated convenience to those of us with limited space for a litter box.

We are intrigued — not scared — of the grate that moves on its own.
Credit: Leah Stodart / Mashable

This version of the ScoopFree worked pretty well in my long, skinny bathroom with under-sink cabinetry that hangs at an awkward height above the floor. I was able to slid the ScoopFree right between my toilet and cabinets, taking advantage of the small amount of open space for my cat to sit comfortably while she does her business. (My cat doesn’t care about a hood, but PetSafe does make a covered version of this same litter box.)

How does the PetSafe ScoopFree work?

First, the ultra-absorbent property of the silica gel in the suggested litter (ScoopFree Premium non-clumping crystal litter) immediately begins drying your cat’s droppings to keep stench at bay. Twenty minutes after the motion sensors notice that your cat has finished their business, the grates come through and rake the length of the box, pushing any solid pieces into the covered compartment. The cardboard lid to that compartment opens automatically through magnets that attach it to the hood-shaped end of the box.

The self-scooping takes less than 30 seconds, after which the digital counter will add that cleaning to the tally. (When you insert a fresh cardboard tray, there’s a spot to write the date to keep track of how long the current box has been in use.)

Swapping trays is quick and easy — as long as you have room to do it. To my surprise, the only permanent piece of the litter box is the frame (attached to which are the grate and magnetic waste compartment. The entire bottom of the litter box is disposable, and you’ll be changing it out for a new one every couple of weeks. (That sounded like a financial and environmental red flag, but more on that later.)

Refills consist of a new cardboard tray, bagged litter, and a lid that can go on the old box.
Credit: Leah Stodart / Mashable
Inserting the new tray takes seconds, and then the litter is ready to be spread.
Credit: Leah Stodart / Mashable

To perform the switcheroo, the ScoopFree frame needs to be lifted completely lifted off of the old tray and, ideally, set elsewhere while you arrange the new base. This was a struggle in my bathroom with limited floor space, especially when I’d forget that I can’t yank it because it’s plugged into the wall.

Similar disassembly of the box and its frame is required just to give the turd compartment a refresh before it’s time to officially replace the whole tray. Even accessing the compartment, which is under a cardboard flap at the front end of the box, requires lifting the entire frame and setting it elsewhere to free up both hands.

Once the new tray is settled, you ditch the old one. Easy enough, right? Well, not exactly. Logistics of how to dispose of it get hairy if your household’s garbage system isn’t as simple as dumping smelly trash in a spacious dumpster far away from where you’ll have to smell it. It also feels shitty if you care about the sustainability aspect of it, which I do. More on all of this later.

Can you use regular litter in the ScoopFree litter box?

PetSafe says no, of course, but I tried anyway.

Crystal litter is one of the least eco-friendly litters you can use due to the mining process it requires to turn sand, a non-renewable resource, into silica litter crystals. Prior to trying the ScoopFree, I was using Yesterday’s News — litter pellets made out of recycled paper. Ditching that for less-sustainable crystal litter plus using a disposable box system in general didn’t feel awesome, so I tried to assuage some of the guilt by seeing if the ScoopFree worked with more eco-friendly litters like ökocat and sWheat plant-based litter.

The alternative litters worked after trial and error. Kind of.

Both clumping and dissolving litter pose significant challenges to the ScoopFree’s rake that aims to push waste into the container at the end. Urine clumps are often skipped over by the grate due to being too heavy, too densely-packed, or too stuck to the bottom to be picked up by the rake. Litter that dissolves once touched by liquid turns into a powder so fine that it falls right through the grates of the rake. In both instances, most urine is just left chilling in the box, and a cat is all but guaranteed to throw a fit about their stomping grounds being dirty. I found myself scooping the ScoopFree just as often as I was pre-automation.

Non-crystal litters also don’t dry out poop and urine, which the box relies on the keep the collection of turds in the compartment and puddles of pee relatively stench-free for about a month at a time. While most litters do control odor to some extent, their odor control mostly just covers the amount of time that waste is in the box before you scoop it (so, a day).

Automatic scooping is a relief both when you’re home and away

I went to Disney World shortly after we started using the ScoopFree and quickly discovered just how clutch automatic scooping is. My roommates are down to take care of Sansa any time I’m away, but I would rather avoid asking them to clean the litter box if I can. It was a relief to know that the ScoopFree was keeping things in order for the week.

Not everyone has roommates to ask to cover litter box duties, anyway, obviously bolstering the ScoopFree’s worth for anyone who lives alone and may find themselves going away for a few days from time to time. Taking vacation out of the equation for a sec, it’s really nice to not have to worry about the litter box during weekend excursions, overnight trips, or even just a long day out of the apartment.

The most unexpected benefit of a self-scooping litter box? Built-in entertainment, if only for 10 seconds. Sansa is a needy pandemic baby who has never been great at keeping herself busy and is particular about what she finds amusing. But for whatever reason, the automatic litter box does it for her. It’s been six months and she never fails to bolt to the bathroom when she hears the scooping start. I’m a sucker for a guaranteed butt wiggle sighting.

Downsides: The self-sufficiency wears off over time

According to PetSafe, a disposable tray should last for 20 to 30 days in homes with one cat. That’s a bit of a reach IMO — and the lifespan of a tray dwindles even harder when a second or third cat are added to the mix. This review is based off of my experience with only one cat.

The first week or so after a fresh box swap is smooth sailing. The litter is bright blue (or bright purple, or white, if you get the lavender or unscented version), smells fine, and looks like much less of an eyesore than a plain plastic litter box with gray clay litter. At this point, the ScoopFree is so autonomous that the litter box doesn’t even cross my mind.

But around two weeks in, I typically start to notice the ScoopFree way more. My first clue is always the green tint of once-blue litter mixed with urine, often with clumps of dissolved peed-on crystals that aren’t solid enough for the scooper to push into the compartment.

When it got to this point, I found myself scooping by hand almost as often as I was with a non-automated litter box. Because the crystals don’t clump, moisture essentially disintegrates them into dust or a delicious mushy pile that resembles kinetic sand. Either way, it’s a consistency that’s also hard to gather with a hand scoop.

To be clear, I’d be totally fine with manual upkeep here and there if the scooping sessions were as quick as they were with my old litter pan. But this process is just a pain, causing more frustration as the litter grows increasingly dirty.

The disposable aspect is unsustainable on multiple fronts

The word “disposable” should be concerning on sight for anyone who cares about the planet that, you know, makes it possible for you to live a life with a pet in the first place.

In a world that mindlessly relies on paper plates and plastic silverware simply because we don’t feel like doing that many dishes, taking the disposable route with yet another household product will never sit right with me. At least the box is cardboard covered in plastic coating rather than fully plastic like an oversized frozen meal container. I’ll give it that. Though I understand why the coating is necessary (to prevent the cardboard from absorbing moisture and getting soggy after a day), I have to consider how that plastic hinders the cardboard’s biodegrading process.

In the annoying amount of time that it takes to shove the old box through my building’s trash chute hole, I’m alone with my thoughts on whether the convenience is even worth the extra waste I’m producing compared to my old, reusable setup with litter made from recycled paper.

Funding the replacement of the tray each month-ish also gets expensive. The math really ain’t mathing for households with more than one cat.

Tray refills go for $24.95 each or $69.95 for three. In a one-cat household, that’s under $25 per month. That probably exceeds how long you could stretch a cheaper bag of traditional litter, but it’s not an egregious monthly bill. But if owners with more fur babies follow PetSafe’s guidelines, which suggest swapping trays every 10 to 15 days for two cats or every seven to 10 days for three cats, the recurring costs add up quickly.

Using a new tray every 10 days could run you over $800 for the year on cat litter alone. That also means sending 4.5 pounds of litter in a plastic-coated cardboard box that won’t biodegrade quickly to the landfill each time. Neither of these numbers sound sustainable.

I tried to stretch each tray’s life past the recommended month in hopes of creating less waste and saving a few dollars. But the disposable trays weren’t really designed to last that long, and having the cat litter equivalent of yellow snow chilling in my bathroom pushed me to cave earlier than I wanted to. Using a tray past its expiration date may not be so invasive if your litter box lives somewhere like the basement. Whether you want to risk your cat retaliating for a less-than-fresh litter pan is on you, not me.

Your other option would be to buy a reusable tray (PetSafe brand or not) and opt for the bagged crystals instead. This method, though less wasteful and more cost efficient, is allegedly just as stinky. Many reviewers mention not being able to get rid of the aroma, even after fully disinfecting the pan between fills.

Is the PetSafe ScoopFree automatic litter box worth it?

Despite its quirks, the PetSafe ScoopFree does work as intended… at first. It correctly recognizes when your cat has made a potty run and effectively rakes solid waste, leaving behind a clean, smoothed-over bed of crystals. And, compared to the tripled price point and peculiar shape of an alternative like the Litter-Robot, there’s no denying that the $169.95 ScoopFree is a more palatable choice for a lot of households that still want to outsource the chore.

But that self-sufficiency begins to dwindle after a week or two. The convenience is met with recurring costs, annoying upkeep, and way more trash than your traditional litter box was ever producing.

Ultimately, the ScoopFree is a handy yet unsustainable system that could become more trouble than it’s worth in households with multiple cats. For single-cat homes, however, it would undoubtedly be a huge help for owners who travel for work or otherwise go away for a few days at a time on a regular basis. Though it requires some trial and error, it is possible to find a balance of cost and waste that works for you.

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