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Lawson Cairns

Veterinarian Dr Lawson Cairns describes his journey from Aberdeen to Durban, South Africa, and his work to improve compassionate care of companion animals.

Name Lawson Cairns
Degree Course BVMS (Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery)
Year of Graduation


Your time at the University

Lawson Cairns outside on a sunny day

To qualify as a veterinarian it was either Edinburgh or Glasgow and Edinburgh always had “the name” and Edinburgh was a much nicer place to live and much easier to commute to Aberdeen, my home town, to get the washing done and stock up with special food.

For some obscure reason I had about a week from acceptance of my place at the Royal Dick to actually starting the course and missing most of Freshers week and being unable to get into the halls of residence put me at a bit of a disadvantage. The Scottish students were always behind in their studies compared to our English counterparts because of the variation in the schooling system and this plagued me with multiple exam resits, which of course had nothing to do with regular weekends away skiing in winter. I even skied down and back up the Royal Mile one very snowy winter nightwell it seemed like a good idea at the time!

To sustain myself I had to constantly seek gainful occupation during the holidays and this involved delivering flowers, delivering milk at 4am for a couple of weeks, working in the fish market in Aberdeen (see the other side of life there) and the best was qualifying as an inspector of the growing crops of potatoes, which was very lucrative. I also spent many holidays on a sheep and cattle farm where the rigours of farm life were deeply imprinted. My favourite place in Edinburgh then was the Victoria and Albert pub in Frederick Street, which had scant regard for Scottish licensing rules.

Your experiences since leaving the University

I worked in Falkirk for two years post graduation in a mixed general practice where a good solid foundation was laid for all aspects of general practice.

I then bought a one-way ticket to Durban, stopping in Nairobi, Harare, Johannesburg and finally Durban, where one of my brothers lived. In one book I read, it said, “Once you have heard the cry of the fish eagleAfrica is in your blood.” Totally true in my case as I am now a dyed-in-the-wool South African. I started in mixed practice near Durban 45 years ago and have since moved to companion animal practice for the last 20 years and just recently retired from sole ownership of the 24/7 practice employing seven vets and 25 staff but I still do some locum work.

I became motivated about our profession and ran our local clinicians group for some years and then our National Veterinary Clinicians Group which involved me in our South African Veterinary Association who saw fit to honour me with their Boswell Award.

For the last 12 years I have been involved with the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) and have been organising Continuing Education Courses on a yearly basis for up to 11 countries in southern Africa to promote companion animal awareness and more compassionate care, as up until I stared this there was no real learning on this aspect.

WSAVA awarded me a Global Merit Award in 2014 in recognition of my efforts to improve compassionate care of companion animals.

I firmly believe that my education in Edinburgh instilled a strong belief in ethical behaviour in carrying out our professional duties.

​​​​​​​For the last 12 years I have been involved with the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) and have been organising Continuing Education Courses on a yearly basis for up to 11 countries in southern Africa...

Alumni wisdom

For my fellow veterinarians-to-be, it is very important to achieve a balance between work, family and relaxation, which is something I did not do successfully. Veterinarians have a very high suicide rate and a high divorce rate and this stems from a level of dedication to our clients and finding a balance is extremely difficult.

However no two days are the same in general practice and this allows us to maintain a high level of interest in what we do and boredom is seldom a factor but this depends on the avenue of work that is chosen.

Related links

Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies

Alumni noticeboard - Pro bono opportunity in southern Africa for vet lecturers