Written By: Ben Cosgrove

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, 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 edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

Scene at University of Michigan's hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Coati Mundi, a raccoon-like animal, cavorted on a wire above the heads of young patients and teachers in Ann Arbor,; on the table were a calf and a pig.

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Scene at University of Michigan's hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Dinner for ducklings was eagerly handed out by children crowding around a pool set up on hospital sun deck. The ducklings were lent by an Ann Arbor farmer.

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Scene at University of Michigan's hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Three-year-old Peggy Kennedy enjoyed these ducklings paddling around in a tub. Peggy, a polio patient, wore a plastic chest respirator.

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Scene at University of Michigan's hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Scene at University of Michigan’s hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Scene at University of Michigan's hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

A bath for this piglet occupied Patricia Cebelak (left), 8, who had a food allergy, and Linda Fox, 4, who had a lung ailment. Two teachers lent a helping hand.

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Scene at University of Michigan's hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

A dolled-up rabbit, with ears poked through a dress, toured the sun deck in a baby buggy pushed by Linda Fox. Pat Cebelak followed with a beagle pup.

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Scene at University of Michigan's hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Tempting a coati, Marc Tannenbaum offered the animal a drop of perfume. The animal had a curious way of taking perfume on its paw and rubbing it on its tail.

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Scene at University of Michigan's hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Canine comfort was offered Buddy Berlin, whose left leg was paralyzed, by Ginger, a beagle pup. At bedside was the hospital’s school director, Mildred Walton.

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Two children play with kittens at the University of Michigan's hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Two children played with kittens at the University of Michigan’s hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Scene at University of Michigan's hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Scene at University of Michigan’s hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Scene at University of Michigan's hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Cuddling with a towel-wrapped baby duck was one of the hospital’s methods of using therapy with animals.

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Scene at University of Michigan's hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Scene at University of Michigan’s hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Scene at University of Michigan's hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Scene at University of Michigan’s hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Scene at University of Michigan's hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Scene at University of Michigan’s hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Scene at University of Michigan's hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Scene at University of Michigan’s hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A child shines a flash light on a jar with a turtle inside at the University of Michigan's hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

A child shined a flash light on a jar with a turtle inside at the University of Michigan’s hospital at Ann Arbor, 1956.

Francis Miller The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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