Maintenance-free feline companionship is only a fancy litter-box away

Imagine a cross between a cat-litter box and a washing machine. That's the premise of Litter-Free, a new device that promises to liberate humans from the downside of feline companionship: the litter box.

Litter-Free looks like a conventional litter box, except for the white hoses that connect it to a water supply, as in a bathroom or a laundry room. The water supply allows waste to be slowly flushed down the drain. A cleaning solution then is released to cleanse the special washable, nonabsorbent litter granules and treat them to protect against odor.

In the final phase, a built-in hot-air blower dries the granules. The standard cycle runs for 15 minutes. For the more fastidious pet, the cycle can be adjusted to 25 minutes.

The maker of Litter-Free, Pet-Centric of San Diego, is promoting its product as a way of making cat ownership "maintenance-free" for those who are often away from home for extended periods, as well as for the homebound and those who may have trouble maneuvering heavy bags of standard cat litter.

Animal companionship is particularly important for the last group, a Litter-Free spokeswoman points out, and this high-tech alternative to digging through the dirty, dusty standard litter box may make the difference between being able to keep a much-loved pet and having to give it up.

The Litter-Free cleaning-solution cartridge needs to be replaced about every two months. The granules are replaced about every six months.

Litter-Free was honored as the best new cat product of 2001 by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. The units are available directly from the manufacturer for $299.99 plus $15 shipping and handling, or at Petco Stores. For more information, visit www.petco.com or www.litterfree.com.

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