Technology for Cats and Their People

Perhaps it’s not surprising since I’ve lived in Silicon Valley for many years now but I’m always on the lookout for technology that makes life easier! Technology for cats and their owners ranges from providing basic care to safety to just for fun. Some tools offer creative ways to solve issues. Some could end up creating more problems than they solve. Here’s an overview of three places technology could change your cat’s life, for better or for worse.

Kitten playing game on iPad
Technology can be fun!

Cat Doors

There are new developments in the traditional pet door. Rather than allowing any cat or other animal to go in and out as they please, these cat doors only allow certain cats through. This way they prevent stray cats or wildlife from coming inside. Some can also be programed to only open from a certain direction or at certain times – for example, if you don’t want your cat going outside after dark. Two types of controlled cat doors are available: opening by reading a cat’s microchip or by sensing a special magnetic collar.

One point of caution with any cat door is that unsupervised outdoor access can pose significant risks to a cat. Cats are at high risk of injury (especially in areas with car traffic) or disease. Other cats, wildlife, even neighbors could harm your cat. Cats with outdoor access are also more likely to show behavior problems such as inappropriate litter box habits or aggression toward other cats in the home. For most cat owners, I would only recommend a cat door if your cat is otherwise contained in your yard with a cat-proof fence or “catio”.

If your cat is already used to having access to the outdoors, a sensory and timed cat door can be useful if you want to start keeping them inside at night for safety. Some training is required to teach the cat to wait for the door to unlock and then go through the flap.

A Creative Solution

There is one way that controlled cat doors can be very helpful. In cases where cats in the home are fighting or struggling to share resources, these doors can be used to create a safe place for one or more cat while preventing other cats from following them. Rather than installing the door on an exterior door, you can put it in an interior door or gate to allow one cat to access a room but keep others out. Now one cat (or more) can have a safe place to escape a bully cat or have a private litter box or feeding station.

Other ways an interior cat door could help:

  • Manage a household with dogs or children
  • Keep dogs from getting snacks from the litter box
  • Create a safe zone where cats can get a break
  • Deal with different diet needs
  • Prevent one cat from stealing another’s food
  • Manage fast eaters vs grazers

Automatic Feeders

There are two main types of automatic cat feeders: timed feeders that provide food when an owner isn’t around and sensored feeders that only open for a certain cat.

Timed Feeders

The purpose of a timed feeder is to control the amount and timing of food when an owner isn’t around. Some even have refrigerated compartments for feeding wet food. These feeders are useful if an owner’s schedule prevents them from feeding at a consistent time or as often as they would like. They can also be a great tool for owner’s suffering from health issues that cause changes in their ability to do work around the house. New parents may find an automatic feeder useful when trying to manage a newborn. Feeding time can remain constant while requiring less attention.

The potential trouble of timed feeders comes when owners use them leave their cat alone for an extended time. Many cats are sensitive to changes in routine and will become stressed when left. The results can include litter box issues, destructive or annoying behavior, or increased hiding or shyness. Even if you choose to use a timed feeder, it’s important to keep a routine of litter box cleaning and interactive play

Microchip Feeders

cat seeks cat trainer
Did someone say dinner?

The goal of microchip controlled feeders is to prevent cats from eating each other’s food. This is useful when cats eat at different speeds or need different diets. The bowl has a panel that only opens when the sensor reads a particular cat’s microchip. Depending on your household, you may need only one for a particular cat or you may choose to have one per cat. You can also monitor how much food each cat is eating.

Self-Cleaning Litter Boxes

Cats are great pets right? The only downside is that litter box! Self-cleaning litter boxes are the pet industry’s answer to scooping the box.

These boxes come in many different forms; some are open with a rake to sweep through the litter, some are more enclosed and vibrate or rotate to shake soiled litter down. Most collect dirty litter in a bag but some get fancy and connect to the toilet to dispose of everything for you. Many are sensored to clean after a cat has come and gone to avoid startling the cat while others go off at programed times.

If your cat is very particular about a clean box, a self-cleaning box may help you. However, there are a lot of potential problems with this box from your cat’s point of view.

The Downsides

A major concern is that they are usually loud and the movement can easily scare a nearby cat. Even boxes that are sensored may start cleaning suddenly as the cat returns or if another resident cat approaches. Noise and movement can cause litter box avoidance. This boxes are also frequently too small for cats to comfortable turn around. At best, accidents could occur when the cat hangs over the side. At worst, a cat may not try getting inside at all. Some self-cleaning litter boxes take up to an hour to complete their cleaning cycle. During this time, your cat doesn’t have a litter box to use. For more about what a cat looks for in their litter box, read here

Self-cleaning litter boxes are generally very expensive (many hundreds of dollars) and may be expensive to maintain (requiring special litter, bags, or filters) so consider that cost as well. Some reviewers find them difficult to keep clean and working as they usually have to be taken apart completely. Other people, though, don’t report this issue.

Finally, as gross as it is, monitoring your cat’s elimination is an important part of keeping track of their health. With a self-cleaning box, you may not notice blood or other changes that can signal serious health problems.

Generally I don’t recommend self-cleaning litter boxes. If your cat is very tolerant, they can be a nice gadget but most cats would prefer something simpler. In a multi-cat household, adding an extra box is usually a better solution for cats who like a clean box. And if your cat ever has litter box accidents, try giving them a regular box and see if that solves your problem. Even the most tolerant among us will get stressed by a bad bathroom experience!

This is all your cat wants.

Potential Problems with Technology

With every new piece of technology in our lives, there is good and bad. It’s good to consider these devices from your cat’s point of view and be prepared for any potential challenges.

All of the tools above:

  • Rely on some type of sensors, as well as a power source, which could fail so they must be check frequently.
  • Allow owners to pay less attention to some aspect of their cat’s life, possibly resulting in missing an important behavior or health change.
  • Can be associated with behavior problems, especially litter box problems.

Some cats and owners happily embrace technology as a way of making life easier. Some will end up with more problems than they started with. Before you add a new device to your life, think about what it does for (or to) your cat. You don’t want to sacrifice their wellbeing for a fancy new gadget.

If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.