Spirit familiars can be the spirits of animals that have once lived or they can be those animal spirits a witch or magician has come into contact with through divination, astral travel or other extra sensory communications.
These beings have either lived as animals in a past incarnation (and thus contain all the species' totem characteristics) or they exist as spirit "governors" of a sort. They watch over and govern the spirits of their species in between incarnations. They also teach the attributes of their species to magicians, witches, shamans and other seekers of arcane and esoteric knowledge.
Most commonly, the operational spirit familiars of witches and magicians are animals that they have loved and cared for in life. On occasion a spirit familiar from a past life will contact its human counterpart in a later life. This can happens when there was a strong connection in a past life between the two entities but the animal has a strong reason to remain in the non-physical planes rather than reincarnate and rejoin its loved one.
In this case the witch might feel the strong presence of an animal spirit and not know the source. Divination and past life regressions through hypnosis can be helpful in "remembering" and reconnecting with the spirit.
Sometimes magicians and witches will find themselves patronized by a High Animal Spirit, one who is evolved and acts as a governor for its species' spirits members. The feeling of being patronized is different from the feeling of connection with an animal that one has loved in the past.
A High Animal Spirit will seek to raise the consciousness of the person it patronizes to encourage spiritual evolution. The spirit's goal in this case is to make the witch's own spirit stronger, more evolved, and more god-like. This can sometimes involve tests that that individual will not understand at the time and sometimes even leaving the witch to handle difficult situations on his or her own.
On the other hand, former pets that have an emotional connection with living individuals will probably have entirely different goals for their loved ones than a High Animal Spirit. Instead of encouraging spiritual evolution, they will probably wish only to help prevent anguish and suffering in their loved ones. Since they themselves are not as evolved as spirits occupying the upper planes (as High Animal Spirits do), they will be unable to see that the lessons are sometimes in our best interest even though they cause pain.
Needless to say, this can often cause serious conflicts between animal spirits that operate with opposing agendas. These conflicts can show up physically in the environments of the human individuals patronized by a High Animal Spirit.
Depending almost exclusively on the motivation of the High Animal Spirit, the witch's once living animal familiar might win the conflict and prevent "teaching" experiences that might be painful for the witch. However, when the High Animal Spirit is truly determined to win, it virtually always will. It is far more evolved and thus more powerful than other entities still undergoing evolution from the lower planes to the higher ones.
This seems unfair and even cruel at times. Why would an evolved High Spirit want to cause pain or suffering to a being it has chosen to care for and teach?
In fact the lessons it teaches are better for the individual because they bring him or her closer to higher consciousness which is the goal of all beings from the lowest thoughtforms (too weak even to stimulate life in a single-celled organism) to the highest gods in the universe.
Great controversy exists today over the concept that the low animal spirits (those who have known the human individual in a past life) may at times know what is in the individual's best interest better than the High Animal Spirit. Some people say this is not possible because a highly evolved spirit would be able to see so much more than a lower, less evolved spirit. However, I have to agree with the alternative explanation that sometimes, lower animal spirits that have known us in life sometimes know when we are too fragile for some tribulations that might under other circumstances force us into a higher consciousness.
I will also take the middle road here and say that it is at those times that the High Animal Spirit will usually back off and allow the lower animal familiar to relieve some of the pressures put on their human counterparts until they are better able to handle them.
Of course High Animal Spirits will not patronize just anyone. They choose their pupils carefully and while much frustration can result from the experience, it is always an honor to be chosen. Evolution of the soul is more valuable than gold in the cosmic scheme of things. It is the single most important journey we take and those people who undertake this goal consciously through studies of religion or the esoteric arts are light years ahead of those who force themselves to learn by mundane trial and error.
Another main difference between High Animal Spirits and lower animal spirits is that High Animal Spirits will not perform actions of magick for the witch or magician that will cause considerable imbalances to result in the fabric of our universe. Lower animal spirits on the other hand, will perform most magickal acts for their human counterpart regardless of their intentions or impact.