In September 1956, LIFE photographer Francis Miller visited the children at the University Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to document the hospital’s animal therapy program, which had already been in operation for over 30 years. At the time, the hospital treated about 3,000 children every year, and the staff operated a “perpetual animal show” to help ease their pain and anxiety.
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 LIFEnoted, “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.”
A room full of children, nurses and animals watching as a ferret is crawling across the high-wire as one of the hospital’s methods of using therapy with animals.
A nurse holding a ferret while the little boy is feeding it – part of a method of using therapy with animals.
A little girl is being held up while petting and feeding the kitten as one of the hospital’s method of using therapy with animals.
Three little boys reaching into a water bin of baby ducks as one of the hospital’s methods of using therapy with animals.
Nurse tending to a child playing with a puppy as one of the hospital’s methods of using therapy through animals.