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'Mutts' is 25! How the comic strip helped pet adoption go mainstream

For 25 years, Patrick McDonnell's comic strip has celebrated animals and supported rescue organizations.
Patrick McDonnell named the "Mutts" character Earl after his own beloved dog.
Patrick McDonnell named the "Mutts" character Earl after his own beloved dog.Kim Levin
/ Source: TODAY

There’s no question that the comic strip “Mutts” is an unbridled success. Created by Patrick McDonnell 25 years ago, the animal-centric strip is syndicated to more than 700 newspapers in 20 countries. “Mutts” has won numerous prestigious awards, including the National Cartoonists Society’s highest honor, the Reuben Award. And “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz declared “Mutts” to be "one of the greatest comic strips of all time.”

But McDonnell doesn’t measure career success through accolades or financial gain but by the chance to make a positive impact on the world by cultivating compassion for one another — and for animals.

“I think that’s what our dogs and cats teach us: kindness and empathy,” he told TODAY.

The very first "Mutts" comic strip.
The first "Mutts" comic strip was published Sept. 5, 1994.Patrick McDonnell / Mutts

McDonnell grew up in the '60s reading the comic strip "Peanuts," which inspired him to become a cartoonist. In his heart, he said he considers Snoopy “my first dog.”

McDonnell’s actual first dog, Earl, a fun-loving Jack Russell terrier who lived to be almost 19, was the inspiration for one of the main characters in “Mutts.” The artist wasn’t sure what to name the cartoon dog; fittingly, his hero, Schulz, suggested the perfect name.

“He said I should name him after my own dog. And I thought he might know what he’s talking about, so I took him up on that advice,” he said. “That’s how Earl got his name.”

In “Mutts,” Earl loves his owner, Ozzie, and hanging out with his best friend, a cat named Mooch. His joie de vivre is a key element of the comic.

Earl sees the glass as half full with his friend, Mooch.
Earl sees the glass as half full with his friend Mooch.Patrick McDonnell / Mutts

“I always thought if I can capture his love of life on the page, I was doing my job,” McDonnell said. “Earl was just so fun and so smart, and just another soul. I didn’t think of him as a dog, really. I just thought of him as a best friend.”

McDonnell wanted his characters to act like animals rather than people in animal costumes, so he tried to imagine their perspectives, which changed his own.

“Seeing the world through the eyes of a dog or a cat and other animals, I started realizing how tough animals had it on this planet, and that slowly became part of this strip — in particular, 'Shelter Stories.'”

McDonnell realized that while “Mutts” characters Earl and Mooch enjoyed loving homes, many animals in real life were living in shelters while waiting for that opportunity. So in 1996, McDonnell started devoting two weeks of “Mutts” each year to sharing the stories of pets he meets in animal shelters.

A sample "Shelter Stories" strip from "Mutts"
"Shelter Stories" highlights some of the animals McDonnell meets in real life.Patrick McDonnell / Mutts

At the time, adopting an animal from a shelter wasn’t as commonplace or such a source of pride as it is today. McDonnell said one of the most rewarding aspects of his career has been how many people tell him they adopted a pet thanks to reading “Mutts.”

“Nothing makes me happier than when someone lets me know that they were inspired to get a dog at their shelter or cat at their shelter because of my strip,” he said.

The regular cast of characters offers hope for positive change as well. For instance, Guard Dog is a big softie who reminds readers why dogs don't deserve to be chained in yards.

Mutts character Guard Dog is sweet.
"Mutts" character Guard Dog is sweet.Patrick McDonnell / Mutts

McDonnell said his goal for the strip is to be entertaining rather than didactic. “Mutts” manages to balance lighthearted humor with themes that tug at the heartstrings. Sometimes “Mutts” highlights inspiring quotes by luminaries like the late poet and author Maya Angelou.

Mutts highlights a quote by author Maya Angelou.
The comic strip highlights a quote by Maya Angelou.Patrick McDonnell / Mutts

“Mutts” strips have been compiled into more than 20 books — a special 25th anniversary book titled “The Art of Nothing” comes out Oct. 15 — and McDonnell donates 5% of the proceeds of books and other merchandise purchased from to the Humane Society of the United States. He also donates signed “Mutts” prints to any animal shelter or rescue organization that requests one for a fundraiser to help pets.

“Shelters have come so far in the last 25 years. I’m really excited by that,” he said. “People are now proud to go get a shelter animal. Thanks to good people who dedicate their lives to helping animals, there has been a lot of progress.”

Mutts celebrates shelter employees.
"Mutts" celebrates shelter employees.Patrick McDonnell / Mutts

McDonnell said he’s inspired by all the people he’s worked with in the animal movement, including environmentalist Jane Goodall, the renowned chimpanzee expert. When collaborating with Goodall for a children’s book titled “Me…Jane,” he learned she credits "Tarzan" and "Doctor Dolittle" books as early influences.

“I always think there might be some kid out there who could be the next Jane Goodall because they enjoyed a ‘Mutts’ strip,” he said. “So that’s why it’s important to do good work.”

"The Art of Nothing" book cover
Patrick McDonnell's latest book, "The Art of Nothing," will feature comics strips from the past 25 years of "Mutts."Mutts