RNA viruses may be particularly capable of contributing to the increasing biomedical problem of infectious disease emergence. Empirical studies and epidemiological models are informative for the understanding of evolutionary processes that promote pathogen emergence, but rarely are these approaches combined in the same study. Here, we used an epidemiology model containing observations of pathogen productivity in reservoirs, as a means to predict which pathogens should be most prone to emerge in a primary host such as humans. We employed as a model system a collection of vesicular stomatitis virus populations that had previously diverged in host use strategy: specialists, directly selected generalists and indirectly selected (fortuitous) generalists. Using data from experiments where these viral strategists were challenged to grow on unencountered novel hosts in vitro, logistic growth models determined that the directly selected generalist viruses tended to grow best on model reservoirs. Furthermore, when we used the growth data to estimate average reproductive rate across secondary reservoirs, we showed that the combined approach could be used to estimate relative success of the differing virus strategists when encountering a primary host. Our study suggests that synergistic approaches combining epidemiological modelling with empirical data from experimental evolution may be useful for developing efforts to predict which types of pathogens pose the greatest probability of emerging in the future.