I had a request to do a video for this subject, and I intend to, but for now I'm sticking to my blog because this is so much easier than fighting with my webcam, YouTube, etc., plus the quality sucks unless I record while I'm running Ubuntu, but then I can't upload. Argh! Anyway, my husband is working on a fix for that little issue, and if I have it within the next couple of days, I'll post a video. Otherwise, well, I'll still probably post because it's been too damn long! Ok, rant over :)
This word, "familiar," gets tossed around quite a bit. For this particular topic, I even asked about it on another website. Sorry, I'm sleep deprived and in a rambling mood... There are a lot of people out there who honestly seem to believe that a familiar is nothing more than a common pet. Very far from the truth. Though you may love and adore Fido and Whiskers as if they are your own children, that does not make them familiars. Have you seen the movie Eragon (I haven 't read the books, so I'm not sure how it is in those)? You know that bond between dragon and rider? Well, the relationship of familiars and their Witches can sort of be compared to that type of relationship.
Familiars can come in many forms, though the most common (or at least according to books and personal accounts) seem to be cats, dogs, reptiles of some sort, and other small creatures that could easily appear to the "Muggles" (yep, I'm a Harry Potter geek lol) as nothing more than a very devoted pet. So how do you distinguish between a pet and a familiar? Well, that may be simple or very difficult. Many pets are drawn to magickal works, but familiars will be more than simply curious. They will be drawn to it as if to assist you (and they can assist you, for the record). There is usually some type of psychic connection between the Witch and his or her familiar, as well, which goes deeper than simply sensing when he or she needs food or the like. The connection is deep and powerful, as if you know each others thoughts, feelings, needs, etc.
As I mentioned before, I posed a question about familiars in a forum I belong to for Pagans. I got a few responses, but this quote is by far my favorite and it really sums things up: "I feel that pagans tend to name any animal that comes in their house this title in their head when the animal is just thinking 'omg does she have bacon?'"
If you have acquired any magickal tool (besom, cauldron, tarot cards, runes, athame, etc.) by "feel," meaning you waited for the right one to come along then suddenly when you found it, you just KNEW, the experience of meeting your familiar might be comparable to that. I feel that you do not choose your familiar, but they also do not choose you. I feel that it is a mutual, spiritual bond/agreement between the two of you, formed somewhere in time and space, though not necessarily in this lifetime. For example, if you believe that this is not your first lifetime (and/or if you believe that you have multiple lifetimes all occurring at the same time, because time is not linear), you may have found each other in a previous lifetime. There may be lifetimes where you do not have your familiar at all. There may be lifetimes when your familiar passes and returns to you later in another form during the same lifetime for you. No one can really say for certain.
My personal belief is that you have one (or at least no more than a very, very few) familiar throughout the course of your lifetimes, and your familiar returns to you during the lifetimes in which they are needed by you or vice versa.
You can always try to call for your familiar during any lifetime through meditation, ritual, etc. if for some reason you feel you need them and they aren't with you already.
I'm exhausted and probably not making much sense at this point, so I'll cut this off with one parting thought. Familiars are not the same as familiar spirits. Familiar spirits are a whole other thing, so don't confuse the two.