Patrick McDonnell
A lifelong animal lover, Patrick McDonnell highlights a variety of animal protection issues.
MUTTS © 2024 Patrick McDonnell

MUTTS, the wonderfully whimsical, slightly surreal syndicated daily comic strip Patrick McDonnell created in 1994, aims for your heart as well as your funny bone. While chronicling the adventures of Earl the dog, Mooch the cat, their guardians and animal friends, the strip gently prods readers to consider the welfare of animals around the world.

For instance, Earl and Mooch’s favorite eatery, the Fatty Snax Deli, went plant-based a few years ago after its owner, Butchie, visited a farm sanctuary. And there was Guard Dog, the tragic character who was chained day and night in a suburban backyard. In late 2023, McDonnell—who served on the board of the Humane Society of the United States for 18 years—made good on a longstanding promise to free Guard Dog. Over a seven-week storyline, Guard Dog is abandoned by his owner, rescued and renamed Sparky. He now enjoys life indoors with his new family.

In this edited interview, McDonnell shares some thoughts on pets, animal welfare and the goals of his art.

How did you get the idea to introduce animal welfare themes into MUTTS?

When I first started MUTTS, I wanted the animals to be more animal-like than most comic strips and wanted to play up that special bond we have with our pets. I had just gotten my first dog, a Jack Russell terrier—named Earl, who was the inspiration for the strip—and I knew if I could capture any of his joyful energy it would be a good strip. I was trying to explore that aspect of dogs and cats in comics and to see the world through their eyes.

But the real catalyst for me was that the HSUS asked me to be on their board. Through that experience, I learned in great detail about the suffering of animals on this planet.

You’ve said you like to pare down your comic strips to a point where there’s nothing left but love. Talk about that approach.

Doing a daily comic strip, there’s so little space. My dailies are generally three panels, so you have to get to the essence of things. I compare it to haiku poetry. When you keep whittling away, what’s left? The only thing that is real is love. I see these little comic strips as little prayers, little haikus, a moment for the reader to experience joy.

You’ve used MUTTS to raise awareness about factory farming, seal slaughter and other animal protection issues. Is the strip a little subversive even though the humor is very gentle?

It’s amazing: I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years now and received very few negative emails about that. It’s like walking a tightrope. I don’t intend to be preachy. The comic needs to be entertaining, but I also want to get those messages out.

It must be gratifying to merge your art with your passion for helping animals.

Nothing makes me happier than when I get a letter or an email saying I inspired someone to go to the shelter and get a new companion, or a letter from a young kid who says he’s gone vegan because of MUTTS. Those are highlights for me; that makes it all worthwhile.

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Cover of All Animals Magazine Summer 2024 Issue showing a dog outside.