What is a spirit animal guide (SAG)?
An attempt at a definition without using the words spirit, animal, and guide; a disembodied light being in a form that is neither humanoid nor plant that is qualified to aid you on the other side of the veil. Or, in other words, a spirit, that is an animal, that guides you in this life for your highest/most/best good. They are qualified to do so because they got spirit animal guide training to do the job!
Many come and go, but usually one always stays with you for your whole life. The statistical chance of someone not having at least one for their whole life is so infinitesimally minuscule as to be moot.
What counts as a spirit animal guide?
Anything that moves. Insects, such as the honey bee, counts (though I suppose you could put them in their own category) but they are rarer, especially as beings that are with you all of your life. Arachnids count (I had a tarantula SAG that helped me with my fear for a while). Arthropods, and crustaceans count. So do extinct species as Tasmanian tigers, passenger pigeons, and dinosaurs. All manner of sea creatures, such as pyrosomes, count.
These terms are often used interchangeably, but I don't use them that way. The reason is because as a white woman I need to be sensitive to indigenous populations that have been hurt by colonialism. The white man has a lot to answer for.
This isn't to say that white people don't have spirit animal guides, of course we do. We have our own historical traditions and mythos connected to animals, and of course, we all have the right to become more connected to the land we live on and the nature around us. Yet, we need to be compassionate to those who came before us, who once lived here, and to their descendants. Doing so requires us to deal with cultural shadow work that we have inherited from our forebears, and is a topic for another post.
To me, an animal spirit is simply a spirit that is in the form of an animal. Some indigenous cultures use animal spirit, or spirit animal in a way that is very specific to their culture and belief set. I can only speak to my belief set and the way I relate to these beings. When I hear the term "animal spirit" I have to take into account the context of how it it's being used, because for me just because a spirit is of an animal doesn't mean it's a being you can trust. Even spirits of animals can become earth bound and have difficulty moving on. I have helped
Often when I hear people discuss a power animal they are specifically calling on a specific trait or ability attributed to an animal; kind of like the DC superhero character Vixen who uses an amulet to summon the strength of a gorilla to beat down an enemy, or to the sharp eyes of a bird of prey when scouting. While sure, there are spirits of animals who respond to this, it doesn't mean that they are your spirit animal guides. What it means is they are temporarily lending you their power on behalf of your spirit animal guide to help with a specific event.
The dictionary definition is that a familiar is the spirit of an animal that helps and guides someone. However, I usually see people use it to mean a living animal. This is especially so with pop culture TV where a magic user has a real flesh and blood animal as their familiar. As a result, I often see people assume that their beloved pets are familiars.
While yes, often animals have extrasensory perception in the spiritual realm it is actually rare for a living animal to be your spirit animal guide. That would be like having an ascended master or Bodhisattva living with you in the flesh. Also, it puts an unfair expectation on your pets. Our pets are wonderful, they are family, but we shouldn't expect them to be more than what they are.
The term "totem" is indigenous specific. Therefore I refrain from using this terminology, since I am of Celtic descent, not Native American or other Indigenous culture. Totem, as I understand tends to be about someone's tribe or ancestral roots, that you can have a tribal totem, and a personal totem, etc.
Because of my Irish and Scottish ancestry, I would rather use the word clan. It respects my roots and the roots of indigenous cultures. Win-win! I encourage you to research your own ancestral history to have a conscious access to your ancestral spirit animals guides. Of course, just because your ancestors believed in something doesn't mean you have to, but I have found it personally edifying.
You can also have spirit animal guides as a result of a God or Goddess or other Divine Being that you call upon. Example: The Goddess Brighid has crows, cows, ravens, swans, salmon, boars, sheep, badgers and serpents associated with her. Jesus has sheep, serpents, doves, donkeys, and Mediterranean fish associated with him.
The land you live on, of course, has animals associated with it by the fact that animals live on the same land you do! Are there hummingbirds where you live? If so, the spirit of the hummingbird can be seen as a local spirit animal guide as a positive trigger to remember certain spiritual truths. You can use the country or state animal used to represent that state or country as a power animal you can access. For example, California has the brown bear on its flag, so the energy of the brown bear can be seen as a power animal available to all who choose to live in California (again, I'm refraining from using the word totem since it's so indigenous specific).