I am toying with a scenario in a RPG where the catastrophe has happen (financial desaster, meteorite hit whatever) which has wiped out large parts of humanity and caused a complete breakdown of civilisation.

In the course people who have been overspecialized must now learn to improvise and learn general techniques again. No "I cannot do that" or "I haven't learned this", there is nobody else available. Poor metallurgy expert for plane turbines, you are learning making knives again, hehe.

One of the characters will be a housepet vetenarian who is now responsible for the health of the group. This raises the question:

How much knowledge has a vetenarian which (s)he can apply to hairless great apes?

At least I think (s)he should be able to healing wounds, giving shots and setting bones. While I have background knowledge for the other characters, I am quite clueless what veterinarians could do. Given that vets forced to heal humans comes up in other media, it is also a general question about the abilities of vets and how to realistically portray them.

The group has all relevant knowledge (anatomy maps, pharmaceutical products) available (rugged laptop with solar power cells).

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I realize that building worlds for Roleplaying settings are in scope here, but I almost think this is better suited to the Roleplaying stackexchange. My answer would be "enough for gameable purposes". S/he has a -4 to work on humans but a +2 in equipment bonuses, now roll. ;) $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 21:47
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ In my experience, a vet would be a lot better in a post-apocalyptic scenario. First, vets need to learn to deal with patients who can't tell them what's wrong. Second, a large animal vet (though not necessarily a dog & cat one) will be used to working in less than idea conditions. E.g, my vet who did emergency surgery on my horse, in a corral, in a rainstorm. Horse recovered, too. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 4:10
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf I totally agree with you. Human doctor types are pampered, what with their good lighting and roofs over bad weather. Veterinarians work in all kinds of conditions that most first-world doctors wouldn't even think of--and some of their patients kick! So they are really practiced at doing a quick job as well as being efficient. My choice for the apocalyptia as well. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 7:04
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I can’t find a certified avian vet in my area. Birds are different. Mammals — common dog/cat/ferret/bunny doctor? Probably have no problems with humans. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 11:09
  • $\begingroup$ Relevant TV Tropes entry: Open Heart Dentistry $\endgroup$
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 7:49

6 Answers 6


Depends on the veterinarian--same with doctors. Like a Podiatrist or Oncologist might not have SURGICAL SKILL at all. They might leave that to someone else. It's not like TV.

A veterinary doctor is far more likely to have more flexible skills, actually, unless they specialize in something like reptiles or birds.

Stitching and cleaning a wound: Both vets and human doctors can do this. Both know how to. Both know about antibiotics.

Basics of Setting a Bone: Both vets and docs can do this, but again, it depends on the individual.

What we're talking about is emergency medicine, which EMTs are trained to do. A vet actually does have to perform emergency medical stuff in a dang field in the middle of nowhere more often than a regular doctor.

Anything beyond this, like major surgery will be... different. Though not as different as you might think. Research on dogs and cutting edge treatments not yet available to people sometimes appear in the vet world.

The best vet or doctor will be one who doesn't specialize and has lots of work.

I lived in a rural area, with lots of farms, I know vets, and I have seen them work. In some cases, they will actually be more equipped to deal with a medical emergency and calmer than a conventional doctor. In a single day I watched vet look at a sonogram in the middle of an open field, stitch up an eye wound, and clear up a case of colic. A typical doctor will likely be ear nose and throat -- or a gynaecologist, or a gastro doc. But a vet has to deal with all these on a day to day basis, mainly with mammals.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Accepted as answer. The other candidate was ZioByte which also gave good information, so I needed to make a dice roll to decide...;) $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 13, 2017 at 17:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ThorstenS. so for your question about an RPG you rolled a die to decide what happens? Did Erin scored a nat 20 and got a critical success? :P $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 13:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @dsollen Actually in The Dark Eye a nat 20 is a fumble and the 1 is a crit....you know, copyright stuff....and no, it was a 12 (Zio 1-10, Erin 11-20). $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 14:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ My mom was a vet, I usually turned up at our doctor only when I needed a prescription, and then I already knew what I had and what meds I needed. $\endgroup$
    – Christian
    Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 14:36

First, I upvoted Erin's answer; Vets should be great at just about everything.

I keep dogs as pets; one of my dogs had bladder stones and my local vet did the surgery of opening him up; cutting open the bladder, feeling around and getting all the sand and stones out; and putting him all back together. She didn't screw it up, my dog recovered fine. My dog wasn't her first; she had done dozens before him.

Vets can do full hip replacement surgery on animals with arthritis, they can amputate hopelessly damaged or diseased limbs and fit animals with prosthetics; in my neighborhood there is a dog with an artificial front right foot (I don't know the owner; another neighbor says the dog's original foot was run over by a car. Must have been a traumatic time for all).

The extremes may be a problem, things that vets often do not deal with, because at some point we just euthanize animals; such as those struck by cars or bitten by snakes.

Also the vet may not have had any experience with many cases of human health care like transplants, or chronic illnesses like tuberculosis or spreading cancer.

Human doctors have hundreds of ways of keeping a person alive for years, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, long after an animal owner would have given up. Vets may be aware of such measures but have never been personally involved --- just because euthanasia is very seldom a choice (or may even be illegal) for human doctors, patients, and guardians of patients. Especially euthanasia to save money on further (or continuous) treatment or medicine.

I am noting this because in game play, these extremes may present useful obstacles. On average your vet would be able to treat things like gunshot wounds, knife stabs, broken legs, etc. In such cases consider the vet exactly like an E.R. doctor, with full surgical ability and complete medicinal knowledge.

But if you need plot points where players must make choices, your vet might not have any experience with more extreme health care choices.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I don't think this is a valid objection, given the context. With a post-apocalyptic scenario tendency to "save resources" and not to waste them in desperate (or near-desperate) cases may be seen as an asset. $\endgroup$
    – ZioByte
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 13:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ZioByte Your caveat, that not wasting resources may be a positive, does not change the fact that the Vet may have no experience. Further, although not wasting resources on the rabble may be a positive, even a post-apocalyptic society will inevitably have some hierarchy of social rank; and for some powerful King or Emperor or whatever, it is likely no resources would be spared in saving their life, or the life of a child or spouse they love: And then the inability of the Vet to treat, for example, cystic fibrosis, might come to bear. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 13:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ IMHO they "have no experience" in something they couldn't be in position to do anyways. In post-apocalyptic setting you average "high skilled" doctor wouldn't be able to do anything without all infrastructure of modern medicine (including, but not limited to: an anesthetist, nurses, blood analysis, aseptic paraphernalia, etc, etc). The "king" and the peasant alike would be much better off with a "lowly vet" $\endgroup$
    – ZioByte
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 17:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ZioByte I think you are callously dismissing more than a decade of schooling out of hand and attributing 100% of their effectiveness to machinery, as if a car mechanic could do their job after a six month stint in a trade school. The equipment is perhaps 20% of a doctor's effectiveness; the rest is an encyclopedic knowledge of anatomy, biochemistry and how the body functions, acquired over years. Much like a vet but the latter has a generalized education and an M.D. spent nearly all his time studying a single species. A vet would be very good. an M.D. would be even better. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, Amadeus, I don't know where you live and things may be different there (I'm living in Italy). I am married with a M.D. and I know the reality of medicine status very well (at least in this part of the world, of course). It is common knowledge doctors nowadays rely on lab tests much more than 50 years back. Also their "encyclopedic knowledge" is much less, and surely less used, as there's a continuous and obligatory use of "specialists". Same applies to Pharmacists 90%+ of whom never prepared anything after getting the degree. What you say would have been very true a century ago. $\endgroup$
    – ZioByte
    Commented Aug 13, 2017 at 11:03

Building on Erin's answer (which I upvoted): Vets will have tendency to rely on what they see instead of what the patient tells them, which may be an asset in an emergency.

Anatomy and physiology of mammals is similar enough that much of what applies to animals can also be applied to humans.

As Amadeus points out (I did not upvote him because I think conclusions he draws are not pertinent) Vets are much more used to consider their patients "expendable", so some finer (and decidedly all "cosmetic") aspects would be lacking.

Another point favoring Vets in respect to "real" M.D. (and to keep in mind in the plot) is a lower degree of specialization; essentially farm animals and pets (there's more than that, but majority is there), while human medicine has become fractionated in such a high number of sub-sub-sectors it's very likely a modern doc would be almost useless for at least two reasons: his knowledge is restricted and thus probably case at hand lies outside it (with possible exception of First-Aid M.D.s) and he is too spoiled, relying heavily on Lab tests and other exotic specialistic exams which might not be available.

A thing a Vet is better to learn fast is humans are much less resistant than animals (even house pets) so they must be treated with more precision (drug dosage, suture points, ...) or they'll break.


Everything I wrote above and all I will write below is from my personal knowledge and experience and is thus limited, in particular it's geographically and culturally localized to Europe, in general, and Italy, in particular, which is where I live and work. I strongly suspect things may be very different elsewhere.

I don't know if this is the recommended way to answering to other posts (see below); please redirect me as needed.


As there has been an exchange of comments with @Amadeus I feel like I need to clarify my position.

I am specifically speaking about M.D.s as we averagely find in Europe, I'm pretty sure nothing of this would apply (as an example) to someone operating in a small hospital in some sub-Saharian village.

Medicine, in the Western countries, has progressed impressively in the last 50 years (that's the period I witnessed, being slightly over 60), as many other things, including computers and transportation.

The latter is particularly important because it opened the road (pun intended) to the switch, in Italy it happened in 1974, to the abolition of the so called "Medico Condotto" who was responsible for sanity in a neighborhood assigning this responsibility to nearby hospitals, rationale behind this was road system was good enough to allow fast intervention even from a reasonably longer distance.

For Medicine this was an epochal change because it shifted responsibility from a single individual (however supported) to a "structure" where many individuals cooperated, but none was alone.

All this lead to a better services (up till current crisis where financing has perilously dropped, but that's not relevant here), but also to fragmentation of knowledge, to the point that, since 2001, it is possible to become M.D. without any knowledge in First Aid.

Similar path was followed by pharmacists; I remember very well, when I was a kid) staring for hours to the village chemist (a friend of my father's) weighing and mixing and diluting and compressing and ... whatever. Nowadays perhaps a Pharmacy in ten (at most!) will accept to do Galenic preparation (and most of them sub-contract others to do the real job) and pharmacists, after years of studying chemistry and the like are reduced to the status of "high level sales clerk" who never used their knowledge to do anything more "practical" than discerning two boxes contain the same thing under different names.

Vets, OTOH, are following the same route, but they are very late and thus, if it is true we see some "vet clinics" (mainly for pets) which are structured like hospitals (with comparable set-up and prices), it is also true most of them operate alone, often with very low-tech equipment, a much restricted array of instrumentation and drugs and less (if any) lab tests.

Speaking about blood (or whatever) test labs: they followed the same path, with the "real work" done by machines, so that analysts are more or less tending and calibrating machines they would hardly be in position to replace personally.

While I'm not trying to belittle the gigantic steps done by medicine in the last 100 years, I see that it has become increasingly dependent on a wide organization and in a post-apocalyptic scenario the very first thing breaking down is exactly organization; this means:

  • Machines would break down and it would be increasingly difficult to get replacements.
  • Supplies will be in short availability and would have to be substituted with "equivalents" (if and when available).
  • The doctor would be alone, possibly with whomever he managed to train.
  • The pharmacist would have to actually prepare the drugs, possibly resuscitating whatever knowledge about medical plants.
  • Herbalists would become in great demand (not the ones we see selling herbs coming pre-packaged from exotic places, but people able to harvest herbs in the woods and/or to grow them in the backyard).
  • Lab analysts would restrict a lot their capabilities and would be forced to do things personally, including gathering supplies.

In this condition, for the sole reason of being already nearer to these (bad!) conditions, I believe a Vet would be immediately much more effective than a generic M.D. and infinitely more effective of an old specialist (who had the time to forget anything about general medicine he learned so much time ago).

In a reasonable amount of time (few years) I believe a young generic M.D. could adapt and learn to be what's needed in the mutated conditions, possibly surpassing Vet abilities.

  • $\begingroup$ I think vets would be mainly good at all kinds of trauma and childbirth--and they wouldn't be AS good at diagnosis of human illness. But I think their flexibility would make them more valuable in this scenario. An ER Doctor or nurse in a busy hospital or an EMT, I think are my other choices for this. And anyone who has had to practice medicine in a 3rd world country. You get creative with supplies--using packing tape when you run out of medical tape. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 13, 2017 at 19:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ErinThursby: completely agree. What I wrote is about the "average M.D." operating in a nice environment in developed country. It does NOT hold for "battlefield" Doctors (e.g.: a field operative from M.S.F. -- E.R. doctors in western countries are somewhat in the middle as they rely too much on structure for diagnosis and follow-up). $\endgroup$
    – ZioByte
    Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 11:27

In terms of emergency medicine, vet is good (I upvoted Erin's answer too).

On the other hand, a human doctor will know much, much more human illnesses than vet.

For example, someone has raised temperature and rash. It could indicate to hundreds of diseases. Experienced therapist

  • Knows what is more probable for this patient in this case
  • Could recognize different types of what we call raised temperature
  • Knows what to look at to detect the disease
  • Knows what pills could help and how different pills interact with each other
  • etc

The veterinar could read some books, but the real reason could be described in the last page, modern drug is absent and outdated one is present but described in another foliant. So it maybe too late.

Also with surgery: without practice the veterinar could find something in patient's belly from third try.

My own hierarchy of useful doctors:

  1. Human doc with experience both in three areas: rescue service, surgery and general therapy
  2. Human doc with experience in any two areas from three
  3. Human doc with experience in only one area. It's what most people mean when say doctor without narrow specialization
  4. Veterinar with experience in large animals from farm.
  5. Human doc with pratical specialisation like therapist
  6. Just man with experience in rescue service
  7. Veterinar with experience in cats/dogs surgery
  8. Human doc with experience in non-practical specialisation like gastro doc. They also learned general human-oriented medicine theory so they know at least name and symptoms of many diseases.
  9. Human doc with only theory in three areas from 1. option
  10. Similarly to the 1-5 but without practical experience and with theory only

To add to previous answers: worth considering that a vet with recent experience of farm animals may encounter issues more familiar to post apocalyptic humans; mineral deficiencies, infections, parasites, etc. Other answers and comments have discussed surgery quite a lot, but in rural places often it's being able to identify micronutrient deficiencies and the like, which is definitely going to be a problem with humans rummaging about the ruins too. People in the developed world sometimes suffer mineral deficiencies, never mind when the food supply has collapsed. Sheep wandering the hillside suddenly appear akin to human survivors.

Vets might find an animal like a goat which had been living in the countryside, but the owner complains it has lost all energy and can barely stand up. They take a look at it, there's nothing obviously wrong. So they give it a salt lick, and all of a sudden it gets up and seems back to normal. Maybe a mineral lick is most undervalued item in a post-apocalyptic scenario?

However, best possible medical professional would likely be an army surgeon recently from a conflict like the Korean War. In that war they ran out of medical supplies after two weeks and had to improvise.

Field doctors often told soldiers to put it in a bucket of hot water. Which worked wonders for minor ailments given the magical power of the placebo effect. Another common concern was parasites. Sometimes soldiers weren't grooming themselves enough, complained of feeling exhausted, only to take off their shirt and reveal they were crawling with blood sucking lice. Or complain they had worms. How did they know? One crawled out of their nose. Okay, well take two tablespoons of engine oil. Why? It'll make you sick, but it'll make the worm sicker.

Those sorts of problems will be far more familiar to a large animal vet than many specialist doctors. And undoubtedly far more likely in a post-apocalyptic scenario.


Vets are likely to be quite effective as doctors, generally, although they may lack some more specific knowledge and some areas, like for example psychological trauma, are probably beyond their area of expertise.

However, there are distinct differences in the way in which vets and doctors interact with their patients, and this is likely to make a difference in how they are perceived by, and interact with, a human patient. They are more likely to be 'hands on' in diagnosis, less likely to take into account patient's descriptions of symptoms (or necessarily to understand them) and, although they may well have normal interpersonal social skills, would not have the interpersonal skills which an experienced doctor would have acquired and may appear off-hand and detached when dealing with a patient of their own species. They may also feel awkward when making intimate physical examinations of friends and colleagues, even though as a vet such physical examinations would be essential to their modus operandi.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .