Whether you have a pet or not, animals feature quite prominently in many people's paths. Almost everyone feels some connection to certain animals, and many of us have animal companions that share our daily lives.
When you speak of a witch, you often also think of a witch's familiar. According to legend, a familiar is an animal or spirit which serves as an aid to the witch. Depending on the legend this spirit can be demonic or even a humanoid shape, but most of the time it is an animal. Often the animal is depicted as having human-like intelligence. Sometimes there was something 'off' or unusual about the animal. Some legends suggest that the familiar must feed from the witch in order to sustain itself.
While many of these concepts have faded with time, the idea of a familiar is still something more than your regular adoring pet. Many people feel that a familiar should take some kind of active role in your practice, either joining you in circle or meditation or otherwise participating in your magical workings.
There are a lot of varying theories about animals and magic. It is a common belief that animals can see things that we typically can not (like: fae, ghosts, energy). Some people find that their animals will not cross the edge of a cast circle while others feel their pets slip in and out of the circle without breaking the circle.
I have had several cats over the years, and while I have been close with them all, one definitely stood out. None of my cats have shown much interest in most of my practice, they don't care about the circles I cast and they are more likely to want to sleep on my tarot cards or bat at my runes than they are to be helpful. One of my cats does like to sit in my lap in the mornings when I meditate (that is the only time she comes up and wants to be on me when I'm sitting on the floor....which is quite often).
I do consider my cats familiars, even if they don't fit the traditional concepts. They are my companions in life, are with me all day long when I am in the house alone. They follow me into whatever room I am in and get upset when I go somewhere they can't go (like the bathroom). I talk to them, and they meow back at me. When I am upset, they will come and snuggle with me. All of them sleep in the bed around me (one up right next to my pillow, where I can tuck one hand against her while I sleep). The one that I formed the closest connection to passed over this year, but I still feel her around from time to time.
Some people think that you shouldn't call your pet a familiar unless they 'do' familiar things. I am not in that camp. My cats make my life better, which makes me happy and content. They bring joy and peace to my house and my family. They raise the energy of our home. I don't need them to fetch me bits and bobs or pick cards from my deck for me.
Another way many people connect with animals is through the concept of totems. This is a controversial topic with some people. It is a well known enough concept that it is one of those buzz phrases that often gets asked (along with: what's your sign and what element are you). Some feel that it is a misused term, though the concept of an animal that you are connected to (either personally or through a group you belong to) is one that is found around the world and throughout history.
Totems often befall the same fate as Past Lives: everyone wants the glamour. If you ask people about their Past Lives, you will find many famous people or important people....rarely do you find farmers or common people. With totems, you will find way more people who identify with the big ones (for example: wolf, bear, eagle) than with less powerful or beautiful animals (like: mouse, cockroach, sea cucumber).
Totems encompass both the idea of teacher and of guardian. Some might consider them to be your own spirit in animal form. This is how I personally think of the term totem: it is a reflection of your inner self. Your totem might represent qualities about yourself that you love or ones you hide from the world. Understanding and connecting with your totem helps you notice patterns in how you interact with the world around you. Many animals will approach the same situation in completely different ways, just like people do. Turning to your totem for advice and help you see the best way to do things for you.
Now I know what I just said about people tending toward the powerful and beautiful totems, so bear with me a moment here. I have felt Wolf has been my totem since grade school. I have always been an animal lover, and predators in particular, but Wolf has been with me since I can remember. I am a huge reader, so I saw more than just the image that is popular in media. Wolf is a predator, but Wolf is also a pack animal (and sometimes a loner). Social structure is important to Wolf, and the pack works together to hunt and survive.
Ultimately, when you feel you have found your totem, it doesn't matter what animal it is. But be prepared to accept both the good and the bad, to look at the whole animal and not just the face it shows to the world. Wolf is territorial and wide ranging. Dominance and submission plays a big part in their social structuring. While they can exist without a pack, the survival rate is much lower. I see both the good and the bad of Wolf in me.
The other thing about a totem is that it typically doesn't change. Your totem is with you for life. A group that has a totem has it as long as the group is formed. A family that has a totem will carry that animal throughout generations.
When we have animals that pop into our lives for shorter periods, they are often functioning as guides. Animal guides can act as teachers or warnings. They have messages for us, and can stick around as long as needed, but may depart once their voice has been heard.
Pay attention to things you see in the world around you. Not every animal is an animal guide, but if you notice a particular animal popping up a lot, it might be wise to pay attention and to really listen to what it is trying to tell you. And animals don't have to show up in person. You might start seeing penguins everywhere: stuffed animals in a store, in advertisements on tv, as icons on webpages.
I also think that animal guides can be any animal: real, fantastical or domestic. I think that they all have different messages to teach us, and sometimes those messages might not be what we expect. Much like totems, when you are working out what an animal guide is trying to tell you, look at all their aspects, not just the good and dominant ones. Dragon might be telling you to be fierce and face down all your opponents....or it might be telling you to stop hoarding your gold. Cat may be saying you are self contained and independent or that you need to take more naps. Horse may be telling you to run free and wild or to accept your blinders and pull the cart where you are directed to.
We can also call upon animal guides when we need to learn a particular lesson. Deliberately connecting to an animal can be considered a form of shape shifting: we are trying to take on the characteristics of behaviors of the animal. This can be a very powerful tool! And like many practices, it is something that becomes easier and stronger the more you do it....and the more you connect to a particular animal, the more solid your connection will be.
We share this world with animals, and they can share our path as well. Whether you want to invite them into your home or just into your practice energetically, animals bring a wealth of knowledge that is outside of our normal realm. Animals can teach us all kinds of things, from serious life lessons to the value of play and the pure joy of existence. We just have to let them in.