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It may sound like something out of an Isaac Asimov short story, but cat toilets really do exist. In fact, the new and improved second generation Cat Genie self-flushing, self-washing cat box has just been released. The first and only one of its kind, according to the manufacturer, it is shaped like a small toilet and connects to existing water lines so it can actually flush waste away. Each time your cat finishes his business inside the bowl, the device automatically scoops solid waste out of the box, cleans the washable litter with a sanitizing solution and then dries the granules.
Beyond its innovative coolness, the Cat Genie actually solves a major pain in the market. According to Petnovations CEO Tal Gordon, 98 percent of cat owners say their biggest problem is the dreaded litter box. Not only does it smell bad, it's a germ haven. There are billions of bacteria in every gram of litter. It's also bad for the environment. Annual cat waste weighs between 8 billion and 10 billion pounds - about four times as much as diapers. And most cat litter is clay-based, which means it has to be dug out of the ground in shallow strip mines. Since this is largely done in China, the carbon footprint for shipping the heavy material around the globe is enormous.
The Cat Genie provides a much greener, cleaner solution. The litter it uses is made of permanent washable granules that are biodegradable and rarely have to be changed. The small plastic cartridges that clean the box are filled with nontoxic chemicals that comply with EPA standards and are fully recyclable. Because every grain of litter is cleaned after each use, it's far more hygienic than a traditional litter box and doesn't smell.
"The only way to avoid the litter box until now has been to train your cat to use your toilet, and you know how easy cats are to train. That works in about 1 percent of the cases," Gordon says with a knowing smile. So far, 50,000 Cat Genies have been sold in the US, but the target is to sell more than a million within the next three to four years.
"This is a revolutionary technology, but it takes time for people to get used to such a big change," he adds. In one example of the same monumental shift, he points to the washing machine. It took years for everyone to own one, but today few people in First World countries can imagine life without one.
FAR FROM being an overnight success, it has taken many years for the initial idea to become an actual product. Gordon, who has a degree in electrical engineering and a background in hi-tech as an entrepreneur, was first introduced to the pet market in the late 1990s by a business partner. "Most of the current pet market products are low-tech," he says. "But if we have all kinds of automated appliances at home like dishwashers and dryers, why shouldn't pets have them too?"
In 2001, Gordon and his partners launched the first cat toilet after several years of research and development. Due to poor timing and unexpected technical difficulties, they ceased operation in 2003. Unwilling to give up on such a great innovation, Gordon and his partner Moshe Mizrahi purchased the intellectual property, including all of the patents, and went back to the drawing board.
In 2005, Petnovations was founded. "We looked at what went wrong so we could solve the problems we ran into the first time," he says. Two years later, the new and improved Cat Genie was launched. Its greener counterpart just hit the market a few months ago and is still only available on-line. Gordon hopes to start selling in retail stores soon.
It might be greener and cleaner, but don't expect to pay less for this cat toilet than a traditional litter box. It costs about $320 for the Cat Genie device and refill cartridges are $25 each (they need to be replaced about every four months with one cat).
Aside from the expense, which Gordon says is about the same as a litter box and litter, a few other problems have been noted. People have complained about installation problems and the noise (it's about the same as a washing machine and each cleaning cycle lasts for around 10 minutes). Some cats are afraid of the toilet and refuse to use it even after being properly initiated (the new device should be carefully introduced alongside the old litter box until your cat is fully accustomed to it). For some cats, it's a great new toy, but playing with it interferes with the automatic cleaning cycle, which does not start until the cat has gotten out of the toilet and stepped far enough away.
STILL, GORDON says that these issues represent only a small percentage. Most cats, despite their finicky natures, adapt well to the new commode.
Petnovations is hopeful that a growing percentage of the 88 million domesticated cats in the US alone will soon be enjoying the benefits of a cleaner place to potty. "We've had people asking us if it's good for rabbits, and there's a video on YouTube of a small dog that started using it too," he says with a chuckle. "We expect it will take some time for awareness to grow and people's habits to change, but we hope to be the leading brand in this new niche."
While this new pet appliance may take some time to get off the ground, there is no doubt that for many cat owners a good, clean solution to the litter box is, as Gordon puts it, "like a... dream."