Almost 60 years ago, in November 1956, LIFE magazine published an article with the deceptively lighthearted title, “Animals Make a Hospital Happy.” Noting that children, especially, are acutely aware of “how depressing it is to be in a hospital . . . the University of Michigan’s hospital at Ann Arbor runs a perpetual animal show which is enjoyed by the 3,000 children who pass annually thought its wards.”
Today, of course, animal-assisted therapy is common in hospitals, nursing homes, rehab clinics and other places where the pain and solitude that so often come with illness—and the stress associated with recovering from injuries or sickness—can be almost paralyzing. Whether or not spending time with animals can actually help spark long-lasting improvements in mental health is an open, and controversial, question. But anecdotal evidence suggests that patients offered the opportunity to play with and otherwise interact with animals appear to be more optimistic about their prospects for recovery, while certain animals (especially social animals, like dogs) can often help decrease the sense of isolation and loneliness that so often plagues those stuck in hospitals for long periods of time.
As the LIFE article put it, “for hurrying a child out of the sickbed, the Ann Arbor hospital has found that nothing can match a youngster’s natural fascination with animals.”
Here, in fond tribute to the critters among us, LIFE.com shares photos from that long-ago article, as well as many more that never ran in LIFE.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.