About 2 years ago, we bought the Automated cat litter box (ScoopFree) for Rini, because of very good reviews. We were quite happy until 1 year later we have another Cat, Mythos.
High Cost + Crystals soaked with urine and poop outside the box: Mythos is a big boy and he pees a lot (no joking, it’s flooding). One box of replacement crystals couldn’t even last for 1 week with 2 cats and those cardboard cartridges were getting expensive. If we didn’t replace with refresh crystals quick enough, it smelled so stinky and Mythos would not use the litter box and he would poop outside the box. So we turned to a solution, a plastic tray called “Forever Tray” to lower the cost.
Forever Tray: This product replaces the ScoopFree cardboard cartridges, supposedly you can buy cheaper crystals. Well, it is a good concept with solid built and it is in one piece construction. The inventor who made this product did not replicate the original cardboard box design, probably he is afraid of getting sued by ScoopFree. The innovative design of the lid using transparent acrylic without hinges is extremely clever.
However, the biggest concern is something called “anti-sliding ridge” at the bottom which causes lots of problems (at least to me, it may not happen to you). Regardless of the size of crystals I used, even with original 4.4 lb FreshStep or Dr. Elsey’s Precious Cat Long Haired Cat Litter (Note: the size of this crystals are HALF size of FreshStep) the rake got too close to the bottom and I could hear grinding noise on the return trip. The rake got stuck 1 out of 15 times with the motor being shut down, of course bigger crystals was even worse and rake got stuck more often. However, when I was using cardboard tray, this never happened even with bigger crystals. Forget it, that’s move on.
I am not alone obviously, see comments on Home Appliances 101 forum.
1. Quote from MM, “… upkeep and cleaning is not worth the ‘forever’ concept. If you are going to by this for your automatic litter box, why did you get any automatic litter box in the first place. I ended up throwing mine away, and wish I never purchased it in the first place.”
2. Quote from Joyce Jamison, “… most of the crystal litter that we can find is too large to easily rake. It ends up mostly in the poop bin or behind the rake which causes an error blink on the box…. The litter we found that works is very expensive that this is not a savings for us. We have two cats so we are changing every 2 weeks.”
The owner/creator of this Forever Tray product on Automaic Litterbox Central forum had admitted by saying Quote “…… the past several months on ways to improve the design… new design will incorporate the ridge — but at a lower height, to reduce the possibility of jamming with larger crystals if someone uses them. Plus I’ve added an additional barrier further back, similar to the cardboard trays….” In short, he implied there was a design flaw.
DIY Acrylic Tray: Since Forever Tray didn’t work for me (well, it may work for you), I started to make my own tray using acrylic panels and I copied almost exactly from the cardboard design. Finally, it solved the rake problem – even I used bigger crystals and rake never got stuck again! However, after using it for 2 months, I had a second thought – all these plastic trays solutions seemed to be more eco-friendly, but indeed they defeat the original principle of ScoopFree “Throw away without cleaning the tray“. In my case, I had to clean it every 5 days, that’s a lot more work. Let’s take a step back and re-think.
(Side notes: If you work with Acrylic, remember to use Weld-on #16/#4, it provides water tight joint by melting the acrylic like welding, do not use silicone caulking or other glue products).
Crystals Problem: Assuming the plastic tray solution worked, that only solved part of the problems. The other problem is crystals itself. With Mythos pees so much, the tray started to smell so badly after only 4-5 days, the crystals basically were soaked with liquid especially the bottom layer. I needed to replace the crystals every week and 4.4 lb crystals did not even last for 5 days for 2 cats. That was horrible, I had to clean the tray so often because crystals sticked to the tray so firmly. Without the clean box sometimes even on only 4th day of new crystals, Mythos was not happy and he shitted outside the box! Deb and I were getting really frustrated.
Chemical Concerns: Okay, what are crystals? It is a chemical called “Silica Gel”. Even worse, vendor like FreshStep added fragrance for better smell. Why would you want your pets to have direct contact with all these man-made chemical? Because many of these products are designed for human, not for your pets. Also, some of the vendors even claim that their products are “dust free”. Well, this is my challenge to you: Put your nose close to the crystals when you pour the them into the tray and take a deep breath, and you tell me the result. Even the most expensive Dr. Elsey’s Precious Cat litter is not dust free. This is a known fact that fine dust can cause respiratory illness in long term. Furthermore, the dirty crystals are mixed with clean crystals (although this is by design), you can’t really separate them easily. We began to think crystals is not a good solution.
What does our Breeder use?
Our cat breeder has so many cats, so what do they use? The answer is wood pellets. They are cheap and more natural. Wood pellets are compressed from saw dust, it is worth reading the wiki on the Internet yourself. So, we switched to wood pellets and gave it a try. AMAZINGLY, no more stinky pee smell, no more poop outside the box, no more dust, no more soaking problem. Wood pellet absorbs water and smell way better than crystals, they simply turn into saw dust after getting contacted with liquid.
It is more work, 2-3 times a day for scooping since it won’t work with any automatic cat litter box. Our ScoopFree machine and the Forever Tray now becomes another cat litter box, I will sell them on Craigslist soon.
Wood Pellets – Softwood vs Hardwood
There are 2 types of wood pellets, namely softwood (pine, cedar) and hardwood (oaks, maple). In most pet supply stores, they carry brands like “Feline Pine” or “Feline Fresh” and all of them are pine litter. Now, if you visit Lowes in winter time (Home Depot does not carry them), you can find “wood stove pellets” in fireplace section, the brand is called “Surefire wood pellet fuel” and they are virtually the same thing with 1/3 the price. Because wood pellets are used as fuel for wood stoves and fireplaces.
On the other hand, there is hardwood pellets. In the photos, Lignetics (bought from Canadian Tire) is made from hardwood saw dust. It doesn’t smell as good as pine and it feels like the poor quality wood panel of the back of your IKEA bookshelf. However, some articles said that hardwood pellets are safer than softwood. Also, read the bag carefully, some brands are mixed with recycled martial and/or composite wood. You can simply tell from the color and smell.
Update 2014: Lowes don’t carry Surefire anymore, they replaced with other hardwood mixed products. Then, we found a local farm supply place Queensville Farm Supply and Country Store that sells this “Pestell Premium Horse Bedding”. It does not say it’s softwood but if this is designed for horses, it seems safe. It said on the bag “100% natural wood product…. containing no additives”, good enough. Well, it doesn’t smell as good as Surefire, maybe because their warehouse has a lot of fertilizers and it absorbed the odor. Good thing is, it is available all year around.
Softwood (Pine) contains toxins
There has been studies claim that softwood litter can cause cancer to rabbits, because pine releases a natural chemical called “phenols” which is toxic that can change liver’s enzyme in the animal. Some pine pet litter manufacturers claim that they remove aromatic oils during the pressurization process and their products are safe for pets. After doing some research on the Internet, people on the forums actually contacted the company “Feline Pine” and confirmed their products are exactly the same as wood stove pellets.
Cats Vs Rabbits and Shavings vs Pellets
There is a huge difference in regards to cats vs rabbits. First of all, many rabbits live in the cage for most of their lives (poor rabbits) and softwood shavings are used for the bedding. Rabbits have directly contract or having a very close distance to the wood all the time, even sleeping. On the other hand, most household cats run around the house all the time, they only get contact with the wood pellets several time a day, with each time less than 1-2 minutes. Cats in foster home is another story.
Consult with your vet, maybe there is more scientific studies on this topic. In fact, we talked to our vet who has 6 cats at home and he is using pine litter too!
Wood Pellets Pros
- Eco-friendly: Saw dust and pet wastes are green and it is accepted by many cities’ organic waste program, because they can be composted in the pasteurization stage. However, NOT for crystals/clay
- No stinky smell of pee because pine absorbs so well and they turn into saw dust
- Pine’s natural scent smells way better than man-made chemical fragrance
- No need to clean the tray/box for at least 3-4 months, no sticking to the bottom. Just scoop the saw dust and poop. Add new pellets, done!
- Cheap, wood pellets for Fireplace is cheap in most hardware stores
- Natural wood, no man-made chemical
- Absolutely dust free, unlikely to get respiratory illness in long term due to breathing
- In natural disasters, such massive power outage during snow/ice storm, wood pellets can use as fuel and can save your life. I can’t think of what crystals can do for you, maybe you can use it to store your pee while you are on a car/van/boat where you have no access to toilet
Wood Pellets Cons
- More work, scoop 2-3 times a day
- Wood pellets for fireplace is seasonal, may not able to buy them in summer time
- Does not work with ScoopFree machine or any other automated machines
- Pine (softwood) contains phenols that may cause liver problems in long term, however hardwood pellets are claimed to be safer. More scientific studies are needed to support this
How much can we save for our 2 cats?
- One original cartridges 4.4 lb crystals cost $20 that lasts for 1 week
- One bag of 8 lb FreshStep crystals costs $13.99 that lasts for 10 days
- One bag of 40 lb Wood Pellets costs $4.99 that lasts for 1.5 months
The choice is very obvious, more green, and save much more.
Any other Alternatives?
There are alternatives such as “Yesterday’s News” (recycled news paper) and “World’s best cat litter” (made from corn) yet, I read about a lot of mixed reviews about them. While I was looking on the Internet the other day, I come across “Cat Genie 120“. My first reaction was: COOL! It hooks up with the water supply and toilet, with self cleaning and drying feature. This is the ONLY product I can call it a fully automated cat litter box. This makes ScoopFree become so low tech.
We have been using wood pellets for more than 1 year since the arrival of Mythos, all of us (including Mythos and Rini) are very happy with the choice we made, and we have no intention to switch. As said above, we don’t know the long term effects of phenols on wood pellets. If you have any information, drop us a message. This is just another article we wrote to share the experience. Hope this can help other cat owners.
Update 2015: Mythos is 6 years old and Rini is 7 years old, they have no health issues related to wood pellets.