If you want most of the companionship that comes with a dog with less of the work, cats are great. They sleep most of the time, and a lot of the rest they’re inclined to spend by themselves. Walks are purely an optional affectation for the feline-obsessed, as is outdoor time (which many pet experts don’t recommend). Cats just want food, chin strokes, sunny naps, and play time, and they reward you for the effort by scaring off vermin. They instinctually gravitate toward doing their dirty business in a litter box, meaning you don’t need to structure your schedule around their bathroom needs like Spot does.
There’s one thing kitty parents can’t get around, though: That litter box needs to be scooped on a consistent basis and regularly emptied and wiped out, due to both the terrible smell and the high probability that said cat will take one look at an unclean box and decide the couch looks like a more appealing urine repository. Unless you work in the medical field, sanitation, or embalm people for a living, it’s likely the grossest thing you’ll have to do on any given day. If you have a feline that is particularly picky about their litter—or more than one cat, and God forbid they’re also picky—this is probably the downside of cat ownership.
This is the situation I found myself in with Siyah, our longtime black tuxedo boy, and Larry, a recent newcomer who also happens to be a non-fungible token on the blockchain (uh, more on that here). Both cats have a history of questionable commitment to the implicit litter box bargain. In Siyah’s case, it’s not his fault—he’s at the age where male cats often develop urinary problems, and they often associate any discomfort with the litter box. Larry is a little totalitarian who, when he first moved in, held the furniture hostage every time the box wasn’t scooped between uses. He also refused to use Siyah’s litter box, instead insisting on a top-entry box he could sit on top of like a human crapper so he wouldn’t get his paws dirty.
It was my hope that the AutoPets Litter-Robot 3 Connect, one of the higher-rated automatic litter boxes on the market, could help restore the status quo by providing both cats with a consistently clean experience and relieve my household of pee-related headaches and one nasty chore.
There’s a lot of different mechanisms that automatic litter boxes use to clear waste—rakes, conveyor belts, even water flushing—and most of them are accompanied by lengthy complaints in the comments section concerning clogs, smears, filth build-up in components, and expensive supplies like special crystals or replacement parts. The Litter-Robot opts for a less mechanically complicated, if far bulkier, solution. It’s basically a giant plastic dome that you fill with almost any normal brand of litter. The cat enters, does what it came for, and triggers a weight sensor. Some 7-15 minutes later, depending on configuration, a gear activates and rotates the dome upside down, sifting the newly formed clumps out of the litter with a plastic screen. The dirty bits fall into a drawer with a plastic liner and carbon filter for later removal, then the dome reverses and moves the clean stuff back into place.
This is more or less identical in operating principle to various models of litter boxes that let the user roll them over manually, though with a price tag of $450 for the base model and $500 for the wifi-equipped Connect, one expects the Litter-Robot to work a hell of a lot better. In theory, the only thing the user needs to do is swap out the bags when they get full once or twice a week, maintain the litter levels, and do periodic maintenance like replacing carbon filters or wiping the interior of the dome.
Based on the roughly two months we used it, the Litter-Robot 3 Connect largely delivers. Dirty clumps vanish and clean litter gets recycled with minimal waste. When the cats use it, it eliminates most day-to-day worrying about cleanliness and cuts down direct human intervention to every few days. The only problem was the cats steered clear of the damn thing at first.
The Litter-Robot 3 Connect arrives almost completely preassembled and ready for action in a huge box. AutoPets recommends not powering the dome until a cat actually gets comfortable using it, which might have been our first mistake, because we plugged it in before we read that part of the manual. Siyah and Larry both then saw their new lavatory kick into mechanical action. It’s possible that made them skittish about using it, but it’s also possible that cats were always going to be suspicious about jumping into the interior of a bizarre machine cave in the first place. I would be, too.
We tried a lot of things in accordance with AutoPets’ acclimation guide and tips from other users we found online—trying to build positive associations through generous use of treats, stacking boxes in front of the Litter-Robot to make entry less awkward, using litter attractant. None of that seemed to work, but one last-ditch trick recommended by Litter-Robot did: upending the giant cardboard box it came in, cutting a hole in it, and placing it over the robot. Siyah’s natural love of climbing into any box he can find kicked in, and by the end of the first week, he was a convert.
Larry loved the box when it was sitting around my dining room. But he was immune to its charms when placed over the robot and would only use the fallback top-entry box upstairs. We eventually gave up hope that he’d use it at all. At the time, we considered a 50% success rate a victory. (That changed as of this week when Larry decided to start using it; we think it might be due to a litter brand switch, but a cat’s mind is a black box and his decision could have been totally arbitrary.)
There were only a few issues I encountered with the Litter-Robot 3, and most of them were the result of unforeseen consequences or possible user error.
The wifi-enabled Litter-Robot 3 Connect we tested is the more expensive model at $500 and can be paired to an app that makes it into a sort of smart home device. The app keeps users updated on how full the waste shelf is, lets them cycle or restart the unit, and keeps a graph of how often a cat enters. The last feature is surprisingly useful.
During our review period, Siyah developed a urinary issue that needed a vet visit and antibiotics, and the app alerted us early by flagging the obscene number of times he was visiting the Litter-Robot. (Don’t worry, everything is good now.) Unfortunately, we were out of town for the weekend and one of the cats—definitely Larry, I blame Larry—managed to unplug the router at around the same time, disconnecting us from the unit.
By the time we got home, the cat-sitter had departed hours ago, and in the meantime, the robot was stuck mid-cycle from Siyah jumping back in too often, and it apparently required the user to initiate a reset rather than doing it automatically. The, uh, consequences of his toilet being unavailable weren’t exactly delightful, so it might be advisable to have a backup box handy in case of simultaneous bladder and cat privy failure. While the only reason we weren’t aware of the malfunction until it was too late was due to the internet outage, users might also not pay close attention to every single push notification from their cat’s toilet. The cheaper $450 model without wifi won’t alert you to any problems at all, which is something to consider when purchasing.
We initially used World’s Best Cat Litter, an (ostensibly flushable, even if you really shouldn’t) alternative corn-based product that isn’t recommended for use in the robot, but various online comments suggested would still work well with it. It was mostly fine, but dirty litter tended to stick to the sides, and the high opening on the Litter-Robot helped the lightweight litter scatter everywhere whenever one of its manic occupants made a dramatic high-speed exit. Moreover, the manufacturer notes that the additional moisture retained by the plant-based products can corrode electronics and make the robot age more quickly. We had better results with Dr. Elsey’s, a brand of clay-based litter many users on the Litter-Robot subreddit recommended. But no matter what brand you use, expect to occasionally have to knock clumps free, and your mileage is definitely going to vary based on your cat’s unique behavior and digestive outcomes.
Another issue: The Litter-Robot is uncomfortably large. While that might make it a tough sell for someone living in a tiny apartment, the trade-off is that any traditional litter box would have probably already been stinking up that place at a faster rate. The only actual build flaw we noticed was that there are a handful of small crevices in the dome where litter can accumulate, sometimes piling up under screens or otherwise getting where it shouldn’t. The good news is that it was a minor issue and the dome and waste drawer are easily removed and cleaned; if possible, we recommend taking them outdoors for a hosedown with a light soap or sanitizer rather than desecrating your bathtub.
The major ding on the Litter-Robot is the price. Half a grand is a lot to pay for a litter box, even if AutoPets says the enhanced efficiency vs. scooping will offset the cost in the long run via less litter turnover—something we didn’t quantify, but does seem to be true. The price would perhaps be more palatable if the primary selling point of the Litter-Robot wasn’t that most of its far cheaper competitors just don’t work very well. AutoPets also tries to upsell customers on costly accessories, reinforcing our perception that their primary demographic is wealthy cat-adulators.
Those accessories include an attachable stairway ($50 new), a guard intended to catch litter ($25 new), replacement carbon filters (3 for $19 or $25 with extra seal strips), and new waste bin liners (25 for $21 to $46 for 100), or a $130 kit with all of the above. The first two things are pieces of plastic that in no conceivable reality should cost $75, while the rest are for suckers. Buy your own carbon filter sheets and cut them to size for a fraction of the cost. It doesn’t make any difference whatsoever if you use your own garbage bags instead of the AutoPet-branded liners.
We didn’t use AutoPet’s partner mail-order litter service, Litterbox.com, so we can’t speak to its quality. But it also seems quite expensive at $25 for a 20-pound bag (down to $60 for a three-pack). For comparison, 40 pounds of the regular Dr. Elsey’s Litter goes for $19 at various retailers, and most other brands rarely went past $30 for around the same weight.
While we wouldn’t recommend buying a used Litter-Robot 3 from a stranger, AutoPets does sell fully reconditioned units returned by other customers on a periodic basis. The price tag for those is a bit easier on the wallet, at $400 for the Connect model and $360 for the analog one, and AutoPet seems confident in their quality, as they have the same 18-month limited warranty as new ones.
All in all, I’m pretty satisfied with the Litter-Robot 3 Connect itself. My cats use a bizarre clockwork poop chute, and I’ve been relieved of my day job as a clump-hunter for a more relaxed role as a kitty garbage man. Now if only we could get one of those 5-foot-wide cat exercise wheels, Siyah and Larry would officially be the most pretentious cats on the planet.
Update: 10/5/2021 at 5:30 p.m. ET: In late September, our unit stopped working entirely—effectively bricked, more or less. It stopped rotating to clear the base, and the blue indicator light flashed constantly... with pushing any of the buttons simply making a yellow indicator light flash instead. Cleaning the unit and following instructions in the manual failed to fix the issue.
We originally set up the unit in early May, and weren’t exactly thrilled that such an expensive product took just five months or so to break down. As it turns out, the issue doesn’t appear to have been with a mechanical component, but was probably the DFI sensor, which determines how full the waste compartment is. When the Litter Robot 3 Connect can’t determine if the bin is full, it doesn’t rotate, presumably to prevent the exterior of the globe from smearing the contents everywhere. This appears to be one of the more common ways the unit can break down, judging from online reviews left by customers.
However, the customer support team at AutoPets (which has since rebranded as Whisker) promptly responded to a help request submitted via the Whisker website. A representative was able to walk us through various steps such as cleaning and resetting the unit, before determining that the base was busted. They explained moisture can corrode the DFI sensor, and that’s why they usually recommend a high-quality clay litter rather than a plant-based one. The rep indicated some users continue to use the latter without problems, as well as that the unit breaking down so soon wasn’t typical.
Whisker subsequently arranged for a replacement base to be sent out and the old one returned; our shipping was expedited, but customers experiencing similar problems should expect warehouse processing times of up to 5 days in addition to shipping. In the meantime, I made the discovery that manually scooping a broken Litter Robot is worse than scooping a regular, no-frills litter box. The replacement base unit has worked just fine.
We’ll chalk this one up to a fluke, and credit their warranty support for being quick and helpful, but the possibility of an inconvenient breakdown that leaves a cat accustomed to the Litter Robot 3 hanging should be taken into consideration. Whisker also offers replacement parts, with a new base being a whopping $400, but replacement gears and circuit boards running the gamut from $35 to $85. An out-of-warranty replacement for the DFI sensor would run $80.