A witch’s familiar, it is said, often takes the form of a black cat. Goats, toads, and other critters could also be familiars, but cats dominate the old myths. Traditionally the belief is that the animal embodies a demonic spirit, an imp or lower demon, that aids a witch in her magic. The more modern philosophy incorporates a familiar as a pet that has a spiritual connection to their owner.
Familiar were not always cats but included just about any kind of wild or domesticated animal. Crows, toads, owls, snakes, dogs, rabbits, or any number of choices found themselves as assistant to the witch. They assisted in spellcraft, herbalism, or even psychic ability. Modern views include a pet that has a special connection, sometimes providing ‘energy’ to a witch whether this is for healing, providing insight, or simply being a wonderful, loving companion.
I’ve also found mention of astral familiars; spirits that attach themselves and often guide/assist a witch in her workings. In some paths, its believed a familiar is the shape a witch may take as she travels the astral plane.
And to what purpose which a familiar serve? In some traditions, the spirit is a messenger or aide. Some shamans might use a familiar to scare or frighten enemies, while other traditions include healing. In ancient Egypt, sorcerers would use familiars to spy on others.
I’ve found some sources sharing a view where ‘familiar’ and ‘totem’ are linked. The beliefs are similar with an animal aiding and guiding, both in physical form as well as astral/dream form. Some cultures believe you can have more than one, while others you inherit the animal spirit through family lines. Some have multiple, others focus on a clan totem, then you receive a personal spirit as well.
I never found a ‘familiar’ in the form of a pet. Certainly there were cats and dogs that I felt very connected to, but I always felt the connection should be greater than what I was experiencing. Guides included crows, often taking form in dreams that held strong meaning for me, or Yellow Jacket Wasps, where the meaning still eludes me. They showed up in a series of dreams, having to do with relationships. On occasion, I find you will encounter an animal in real life or in the dream realm, that will teach or guide you to a new revelation. Keep your mind open, and listen and watch.