A pet is not a Familiar. In fact, I don’t like the word Familiar in the context of a magical animal companion. This is a situation where words and definitions are not being properly used. It’s incorrect and is full of the vitriol from the trials where countless numbers of men, women, and children were put to death for the imagined crime of Witchcraft.
Ages ago, when the word first came to be associated with the animal companions of witches, it was done so by inquisitors and not the accused, the witches, themselves. The accusation of having a Familiar was added to the charges leveled against a person and in many cases, was enough to have innocent animals killed alongside their tortured owners.
The true definition of “Familiar” is a spirit who assists and serves the witch. It was believed that this discarnate spirit was housed in the body of an animal companion to provide a disguise for it so that the witch could call upon it as needed without attracting undue attention.
Even more sinister than this was the belief that a Familiar was a demon given to the witch by the devil to assist her. In both cases, a Familiar is not the animal, but an otherworldly spirit in animal form.
Obviously, the belief in a Familiar when understood in this context should be clearly seen for the medieval superstition it was. Yet, folks today who have a beloved pet, maybe even one who is attuned to and enjoys experiencing ritual with their witch, use the label of Familiar. Most who use the term don’t really believe that there’s some alter-ego lurking within Fluffy or Fido, they just like saying, “I have a Familiar.”
No, you don’t have a Familiar. You have a pet, a friend, a companion, or an extra member of the family. When faced with the truth of what a Familiar is, most modern Witches wouldn’t dream of kicking out the soul of their pet just so that an otherworldly discarnate being could dwell their for the sole purpose of serving the Witch. Yet this is EXACTLY what the word Familiar means.
The Familiar is not the animal companion, it is the spirit that dwells within the animal companion.
I have three cats. Violet, my oldest, is a cuddle-bug who absolutely adores being in ritual with me. She’s highly sensitive and will come from another room when the magic starts flowing because she’s drawn to it. In most cases, she just finds a spot to lay down and half-closes her eyes, soaking it up like she’s laying in a sunbeam. According to lots of practitioners and many recent books, she fits the description of a Familiar. I trust her in circle, she definitely knows when magic is being done, and she even turns her attention to whichever quarter has been opened. The other two cats keep to themselves when I am in circle. The only exception to this is when Bastet is invited. All three of them will then become eager and excited, darting to and from the room like hyper little kittens. I don’t use the term Familiar to describe any of them. I’m more likely to call them “my kids.”
A more accurate understanding of Familiar would be a Spirit Guide or personal Angel. This is truer to the meaning of the word than an animal companion that houses this particular being.
If your Spirit Guide lives in your pet; if you ask your pet’s advice, trusting it as a higher being; if you invite your pet into circle with you for ritual worship; or if you get messages from your pet guiding you in your life or work, then your pet is a Familiar. (Or you should find out if you should seek psychological therapy.) If your pet doesn’t do these things, then it’s a pet.
There are some ceremonial ritualists who might actually work with animal Familiars, but I don’t, and no other Witches I know have animal companions who are actually spirits living in the bodies of their pets, called upon to serve them.
So, do you really have a Familiar?
I think not.
Your mention of birds and amphibians, Daniel, reminds me - this is one of the reasons that the classical witch's familiar is depicted as one of these animals, because they were always near enough to people, and usually around (particularly at the edge of the woods, for instance), but they weren't "part of the family," as it were.
Also, I apologize to Serpent if I was being contrary to a point she didn't make.