clouding the issue as to what exactly is a spirit animal and how is it different to a totem, a familiar or a pet.
So before looking at what a spirit animal is, lets have a look at what it isn't by defining what the primary things is it most confused with being actually are.
The easiest to define of course is a pet. A pet is a creature you keep in your home, one that you bond with and share a relationship with. Pets are kept by both witches and non witches alike and a close relationship with your pet does not make it either your familiar or your spirit animal. A pet is likely to be considered a member of your family and a friend but that does not imply a magical connection. Don't make the mistake of confusing affection for your pet with a magical alignment.
The concept of the totem has its roots in Native American craft. The totem represents an intrinsic and unchanging part of the individual. A person does not find a totem, a person comes to recognise the totem that already lies within. An totem is an existing part of an identity symbolising the character of the individual. The search for the totem is the search for the core of the individual, it is the understanding of the self in its most primitive form. The totem reveals the truth of an individual's fundamental nature and also gives an indication of the lessons the individual is to learn in this lifetime. A totem animal will likely be kept a secret as to have knowledge of another person's totem is to have have deep knowledge of them and of course such knowledge in the wrong hands could give power over an individual. The journey and the quest inward to totem discovery is often used within Shamanistic practise.
Shamans also embrace the idea of the power animal. To meet a power animal is to have a non physical short term (often single occasion) encounter where the characteristics of a specific animal are drawn upon for a firm purpose. To give an example, a cat might be called upon for its ability to see the dark and therefore discern clarity from the clouded. A Shaman or a witch would call upon the animal, utilise the energies (with the consent of the guiding animal) and then likely part ways when the working or journey is complete. A power animal is not specifically linked to the individual - it is chosen for the individual circumstances. This differs greatly to the totem which is discovered, not chosen.
The idea of the familiar is very prevalent in Witchcraft (and you might be able to tell I'm back on home ground here after that quick trip into the foreign lands of Shamanism...). The idea of the familiar has three established concepts within the craft. The first is that the familiar is a demon or a spirit that has taken the place of an everyday animal and is sent forth to do the bidding of the witch. Cats of course have been traditionally identified within this role but this is perhaps unsurprising as cats are undoubtedly the most commonly kept domestic animal and have been throughout history.
The second concept of the familiar is that it is a vessel for the witch to send her own spirit out into the world. In this case the essence of the actual animal itself becomes unimportant, the animal is simply a second housing for the spirit of the witch. Some witches use this as a method of astral projection, projecting themselves into the animal to use the alternative body for their own purposes.
The third concept of the familiar is that the animal itself has a personal link with the witch and assists in her workings by intentionally lending its energies to her magic. This is the concept most often depicted in modern culture - the cat nodding away sagely as the witch mixes up a potion. Many witches will testify to having their pets lend energy to their spells. This interpretation also incompasses the idea of the physical animal forming a link to the spiritual essence associated with that animal. By this I mean - when the cat familiar focuses on a working with a witch she is not just bringing forward her own energies, she is acting as a bridge between the physical and spiritual world. She is bringing not just her own spirit but the
quintessential nature of the cat into the working.
So having determined what a spirit animal is not, we are now in a better position to look at what a spirit animal actually is. A spirit animal is generally a animal that comes to us in spirit (hence the name) to act as guide and teacher. This relationship can be inspired by interaction in the real world - it would be prudent to look at why you keep encountering a certain type of animal for example - or the animal could make itself known through the world of dreams. The spirit animal is not necessarily an animal you have a particular liking for or even an animal you have ever encountered in the flesh. It is very likely to be an animal that has a message for you which is why, hard as it might be, it is important to allow your spirit animal to find you rather than choosing an animal because you like it. Seeking a spirit animal through your dreams and more specifically through meditation is far more likely to yield the knowledge of the animal who has a lesson to teach you.
Many witches believe spirit animals provide protection, both in the physical world (through guidance, not through physical intervention) and on the astral plane or the world of the spirits.
Other witches see the spirit animal as the eventual escort to the land of the dead (perhaps not dissimilar to the Christian idea of the guardian angel.) Birds in particular are often viewed as a source of communication between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
It is of course important to make the distinction between a genuine spirit animal and a malicious spirit taking on a specific form for a purpose of its own.
A spirit animal can be a relationship for as long as you need the guidance of that animal. Unlike a totem a spirit animal is not with you for life. It will stay as long as you need the protection it can provide or until you have learned the lesson it can teach you. A witch may interact with different spirit animals through her life, possibly even having several at the same time.