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Terry Talbert column for Sunday, Nov. 30

November 29, 1997

Hey, this high-tech litter box costs 'less than a fax machine'

With Christmas approaching at warp speed, I've taken to watching half-hour TV shows on new products that might interest some of my unique friends and family members.

You've probably seen them. The inventor explains the product, and others no doubt hired by the inventor offer testimonials in which they tell you how this product has changed their lives forever.

The other day I happened to turn to a show that immediately grabbed my attention. The commercial was about Littermaid, a mechanized, self-cleaning kitty litter pan which automatically rakes offending objects from the (clumping-type) litter and dumps them into a small attached plastic box which automatically seals.

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The rake moves across the litter 10 minutes after the cat has left the box. It has a safety sensor which stops the rake if the cat re-enters.

As part of the introductory offer for the new Littermaid, you get a cat paw cleaning ramp free. The ramp extends from the litter box to the floor.

When I tuned in, a veterinarian was explaining how a dirty litter box can cause behavioral problems in cats.

"An unclean litter box affects a cat's behavior," he explained. "It can lead to inappropriate elimination. It's their way of telling you they have a problem."

Now, for those of you who don't have cats, this means that they get ticked off and relieve themselves on your belongings. Sometimes it's your clothing. Sometimes it's the middle of your bed. You get the idea.

They have a very direct way to telling you when you've made them unhappy. (Thank goodness my Scooter and Cassie are euphoric about the condition of their litter box, which I keep immaculate.)

Scooter does occasionally use Cassie as a scratching post when he's bent out of shape over something. But that usually happens when I run out of Kluckers. Scooter is addicted to Kluckers.

I feel sorry for Cassie when the fur flies, but she's got plenty of it to lose. And when he picks on her, he's not using my leg as a scratching post.

But back to Littermaid and the vet. The cat doctor said that a dirty litter box can harbor viruses and bacteria, which is particularly bad for the immuno-suppressed person. He said some cats will "hold it" rather than use a dirty litter box. This can lead to constipation or the dread "urinary tract syndrome" which can irreparably harm your pet.

Several cat owners then gave their testimonials. One compared a filthy litter box to "using the bathroom all day without flushing." Another called litter pans "primitive, dirty and gross." An older woman said her arthritis prevented her from bending over to scoop out offending objects. (My answer to this is ... put the litter box on a table. Cats can jump. If your cat is too old to jump, build it a ramp).

One woman talked about how how her sanity is affected by litter box cleaning.

"A 24-hour scoop patrol ... It's crazy picking through sand and clay every day. Give some sanity back to the cat owner ... ," she said

(I've picked through worse things than litter clumps when cleaning out my refrigerator, so that part never bothered me.)

The woman continued: "By using Littermaid you can save one-half to two-thirds of your annual litter costs , whether you are a clumper or a dumper. If you scoop 1,000 times a year ... if you paid yourself 25 cents for each scoop, you would have $250." (I didn't quite get the point with that one).

"It's time to end the stress and stop the odors that others smell and don't tell you about," she added. (She must not have honest friends. If mine smell something, they tell me about it.)

The clincher: This high-tech "Zen-raked" litter box costs only $199.96.

"Less than a fax machine," the woman said.

Get the feeling I'm a skeptic? Well, I have a couple problems with this product, other than its price. First of all, cats are attracted to moving objects. Every time the rake moved, my cats would get in the box to watch it. It would stop. This would happen over and over and the clumps would never get dumped.

My cat Cassie has long hair. With my luck it would get caught in the machinery and she would be raked into the self-sealing pan.

With my luck, Scooter would relieve himself on the electrical hookup, get electrocuted and raked, and turn himself into one of those wild-looking flat cats you see suctioned to car windows.

Naw, I think I'll pass. I'll just hang on to my $2 cat pan and scoop. And hope my friends tell me if they smell something weird.

Terry Talbert is a Herald-Mail staff writer.

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