Pathfinder 2e - Practical Guide to Animal Companions
Last Updated: November 8th, 2019
I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks.
- : Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
- : OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances
- : Good options.
- : Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.
Animal Companions have been a staple thematic element of druids and rangers since at least 3rd edition DnD. The image of an adventurer braving the wilds with a loyal beast at their side is evocative and exciting, and it naturally appeals to players. In more mechanical terms, an Animal Companion is a powerful addition to your character's capabilities, allowing them to fight as though they were in two places at once, and allowing the companion and your character to fight as more than the sum of their parts.
Class and Animal Companions
Multiple classes offer access to Animal Companions. While there is overlap in the core Animal Companion feats, some classes have exclusive feats, and classes often get the same feat at different levels.
: The Champion's access to Animal Companions is very clearly dedicated to using the companion as a mount. The expectation is that you will select the Horse, and that's a fine choice, especially if you don't intend to advance your companion. You can select other options with the GM's permission, but the Horse is a fine choice. Champions get some unique feats that let your companion do some cool things like taking a single Stride or Strike without you spending an Action to Command them, and they get a whole bunch of fun divine stuff to add to their companion, but don't expect to use your companion as a pet attack dog. The Champion's Steed Ally is almost exclusively a mount, and its other capabilities are largely neglected.
- Steed Ally
- Loyal Warhorse
- Heal Mount
- Imposing Destrier
- Auspicious Mount
- Celestial Mount
: Druids have the easiest access to Animal Companions at 1st level, gaining the feat for free with the Animal Druid Order. They also get access to feats which progress your Animal Companion two levels earlier than the Ranger. Multiclassing into Ranger to get Companion's Cry looks very tempting, but remember that it takes an Action to use on top of the Action required to Command your companion, so you'll likely be unable to cast spells in the same turn that you use Companion's Cry.
- Animal Companion
- Mature Companion
- Incredible Companion
- Side by Side
- Specialized Companion
: While the Ranger doesn't get feats which improve their Animal Companion as early as the Druid, they get more feat options, and can do more with their companion than the Druid can. The Ranger's Animal Companion feat allows the Ranger to apply Hunter's Edge, which can add considerably to the companion's capabilities. Companion's Cry allows the Ranger to give their companion an additional action (at the expense of another one of the Ranger's actions), allowing you to rely more on your companion as your primary combat option rather than simply as an extension of your own martial capabilities.
- Animal Companion
- Companion's Cry
- Mature Animal Companion
- Incredible Companion
- Side by Side
- Stealthy Companion
- Specialized Companion
- Masterful Companion
Animal Companion Stats
Animal Companions use stats similar to monster, rather than similar to a player character. While there are a number of build decisions to be made over time, there isn't nearly so much to manage as your actual character.
Rather than using ability scores like players do, Animal Companions use Ability Modifiers like monsters do. You also don't get fine control over improvements to their abilities, so they're easy to manage and don't require a ton of micromanagement to build your companion.
Your Animal Companion begins with base ability modifiers of Str +2, Dex +2, Con +1, Int –4, Wis +1, Cha +0. With -4 Int, they're as smart as a character with 2-3 Intelligence, and their actions and capabilities are limited accordingly. Your Animal Companion is a powerful and well-trained animal, but they're still just an animal.
Animal conpanions gain 4, 6, or 8 hit points from their type, then 6+Con per level. Your companion has as many hit points as a wizard. Don't expect them to tank for your whole party on their own.
Animal Companions are Trained in everything that they need to be successful, but none of their proficiencies improve until they become Mature.
Barding and Unarmored Defense
Animal companions have two options for armor: Unarmored Defense and Barding. Unarmored Defense is the "default", if only because animals don't typically wear armor. If your companion becomes Nimble, their proficiency in Unarmored Defense increases by one stage. If your companion becomes specialized with either the Ambusher or Daredevil specialization, their proficiency increases by one stage. If your companion is both Nimble and has either the Ambusher or Daredevil specialization, their Unarmored Defense proficiency maxes out at Master (level+6 bonus to AC). Unfortunately, selecting both Ambusher and Daredevil does not increase this proficiency beyond Master.
Most Animal Companions should wear Barding. There are two types of barding (light and heavy), and it's not explicit which types Animal Companions are proficient in. The Animal Companions rule simply says "barding", and the Equipment rules say "combat-trained animals are trained in heavy barding", so I think Animal Companions get proficienct in both light and heavy barding. Unfortunately, Animal Companions never improve their proficiency in barding, but the +3 bonus from heavy barding will exceed the bonus provided by Expert proficiency in Unarmored Defense, and a suit of +1 heavy barding will match Master proficiency.
Beyond their raw stats and their attacks, every type of Animal Companion has a Support Benefit. Your companion can use their Support Benefit as an action, but if they do so they can't take other actions except to move that turn, so you can't have them use their support benefit and make a Strike in the same turn.
While each type of Animal Companion varies numerically and has different attacks, the Support Benefit is probably the most unique part of each Animal Companion type. Strongly consider how your companion's Support Benefit works alongside your own character in combat. While many Support Benefits are fantastic on their own merits, they won't be useful if they don't cater to your character's strengths.
While riding your Animal Companion, they lose the ability tp use their Support Benefit unless your companion has the Mount trait. They're still free to move, to attack, and to take any other action which they could normally take, but if you're riding around on a bear or something, expect to dismount in combat unless you just want your companion to walk around and hit things or to use their Advanced Maneuver.
When your companion becomes Nimble or Savage, it also gains access to the Advanced Maneuver for its type. These are a unique new Action/Activity which your companion can perform. These maneruvers typically fit the companion type thematically, and in many cases they're powerful new combat options.
Animal Companion Progression
As your companion improves over time, they go through a series of stages where it gains a number of improvements in its capabilities. While many of your companion's stats increase numerically based on your level, moving through the stages below provides significant improvements to your Animal Companion's capabilities which both improve it numerically and help it to specialize in a specific role.
Young Animal Companions
Animal Companions start out "young" by default. These companions are available at 1st level. Most types of Animal Companions will be small (with the exception of the Horse), and riding your companion will be difficult (again, with the exception of the Hose).
Mature Animal Companions
Mature is a significant improvement to your companion's abilities. It adds +1 to its important ability modifiers, gains a second damage die, improves its proficiency in Perception and in all saves, and gains or improves proficiency in a few skills.
At this stage your companions size probably increases, too. Most companions become medium at this stage, but horses are a bit more complicated. When you select a horse as your animal companion, you get to choose either a medium horse (a pony) or a large horse. If you're small, a medium-sized horse/pony because it suits your size better. Raising your companion's size to large isn't beneficial and may actually make your life harder because you can no longer fit your medium-sized companion into small spaces like 5-foot wide corridors.
Nimble/Savage Animal Companions
The choice between Nimble and Savage depends heavily on your choice of companion type.
Nimble companions have higher Dexterity and higher Unarmored Defense, but they deal less damage with their Unarmed Strikes. Generally, Nimble is a good option for Dexterity-based companions which focus on actions other than attacking.
Savage companions increase in size (unless they're already larger than Medium), get more Strength, and gain a larger flat bonus to their Unarmed Strike damage. Savage is essential for medium characters who want to ride a companion other than the Horse, or if you just want a big combat monster. Because Savage companions don't advance their Unarmored Defense proficiency, they must generally rely on barding to boost their AC.
Specialized Animal Companions
A late-game option, your companion can take any number of specializations, though it can't take the same option twice, and you'll only have 2 to 4 chances to spend a Class Feat to specialize your companion.
Likely only important for the Cat unless your character is heavily dependent on Stealth. I'm not sure what the bonus to initiative does since Animal Companions are minions and act on your turn. The improved Unarmored Defense bonus is nice, but it doesn't stack with Daredevil, and Daredevil is a much more broadly useful option.
One of just two specialization options to boost your companion's Strength Modifier, Bully is a great option for Strength-based companions looking to deal extra damage. The improved Intimidation Proficency and the significant boost to your companion's Charisma Modifier grant a total of +5 to Intimidation, making Intimidation actions dramatically more effective.
Useful for the improvement to Unarmored Defense, but fantastic due to the other defensive benefits. An absolute must for Nimble companions.
Nearly every type of Animal Companion is faster than the average humanid land speed, and the Constitution Modifier increase isn't enough to make this food enough on its own.
If you don't plan to have your companion intimidate enemies, Wrecker is the better of the two specializations which can improve your companion's Strength Modifier. Athletics is a broadly useful skill, and ignoring half of an object's Hardness can allow your companion to break through all manner of objects, as well potentially destroying enemys' items.
Animal Companion Types
When considering your type of Animal Companion, consider what you want it to do. Most companions thrive in a specific function, but a few like the Badger and the Wolf exist primarily to serve as a pet fighter.
The badger has a few interesting mechanical advantages, but at the end of the day it's a simple attack animal similar to the Wolf. It has high hit points, perfectly flat ability modifiers, and two attacks, so it's basically a blank canvas. Its defining capability is Badger Rage, which allows it to temporarily boost its damage in exchange for a small AC penalty. The Badger is also the only type of Animal Companion with a Burrow Speed.
If you can remember to activate Badger Rage, the Badger is better than the Wolf. If you don't want to worry about micro-managing your companion, the Wolf is easier to handle.
When advancing your badger, make it Savage. The Badger's attacks both lack the Finesse trait, so a Dexterity-based badger is a bad bager. Expect your badger to wear heavy barding. When your companion specialized, consider Bully and Wrecker to boost its Strength.
Preventing enemies from stepping won't be frequently helpful. Enemies who thrive in melee will likely be fine being in melee with your companion (and potentially you), and enemies who don't do well in melee (and probably can't take the Attack of Opportunity Reaction) can be easily flanked. Any time that they Step so that you're no longer flanking you can Command your companion to move so that you're flanking again.
Not very exciting, but it's hard to complain about more damage.
The Bear has a lot going for it. It has high Strength, high hit points, and it's the only type of Animal Companion which gets Intimidation as its free skill. The Bear's Support Benefit is uniquely fantastic for ranged attack builds (generally archers with bows), and even if all it's doing is attacking it's still going to be one of the more effective companions.
When advancing your bear, make it Savage. You want to emphasize your bear's Strength, and making it Large allows it to grapple foes up to Huge size. Expect your bear to wear heavy barding to boost its AC. When your companion specalizes, Bully is an obious option, capitalizing both on your companion's Strength and on its uniquely high Intimidation proficiency. You might also consider Wrecker.
For rangers and other characters relying primarily on their own attacks for damage output, this is fantastic. You don't need to gamble on your companions attacks. Your own attack bonus will almost certainly exceed your companions, and the difference in accuracy will easily outweight losing your bear's Strength bonus to damage. The targets need only be in your bear's reach when you use the Support Benefit, so you can take advantage of this option at range, making the Bear a fantastic option for archers. Unfortunately, Druids and other spellcasters won't see much benefit here, and this is only useful on turns where you are attacking creatures in your bear's reach.
If your bear is attacking a target on their own and nothing else important is going on, this will frequently be better than making two regular Strikes with your bear's claws. But if you really need your bear to grapple the target, they should be doing that with their first Action rather than hoping that they'll hit twice in a row.
The Bird is an absolutely stellar Striker. The Bird's Support Benefit applies a small amount of ongoing damage and a significant debuff. With the ability to fly, it can easily engage foes in a variety of environments, and with 50 ft. fly speed it can reach them in a hurry and back away just as quickly if they're in danger.
Tragically, you can't ride your bird while it flies. Animal companions are only allowed to use their land speed while you ride them unless they have the Mount trait.
When advancing your bird, I recommend making it Nimble. Nimble will give it a higher total AC without needing to invest in expensive (and bulky) magic barding. The Bird's primary offensive options is its Support Benefit, and its attacks all have Finesse, so even if your bird is just making Strikes it will do fine relying on high Dexterity. When your companion specializes, consider Daredevil and Racer, both of which will increase your birds durability, which are important for your bird to attack enemies where it may need to be isolated from your party.
The ongoing damage is fine, but making the target Dazzled on an ongoing basis is the real benefit here. Dazzled gives a creature a 1-in-4 miss chance on their attacks, and even if they remove the persistent damage you can just apply it again. This is especially useful for archers because your bird's flight allows it to move quickly between enemies, allowing you to potentially apply the effect to a new target every turn.
This doesn't prevent Reactions from the target, so if they can make an Attack of Opportunity, this is a bad idea. If the target can't make an Attack of Opportunity, there is rarely a reason to keep your bird outside fo the creatures' melee reach. This will be situationally useful, but don't expect it to redefine your tactics.
The Cat is equal parts flanking partner and Striker. The Cat begins with Stealth proficiency, allowing it to leap from Stealth to attack foes. While it's capable on its own in melee, the Cat's most unique feature is the bonus damage it deals to flat-footed foes, so it truly shines when it has an ally (probably you) to flank with. If you're not planning to get into melee alongside your companion and you don't have another suitable martial ally, you'll likely be better served by a wolf or a bear.
Cats have a special trait which allows them to deal an extra 1d4 precision damage to Flat-Footed targets, similar to the Rogue's Sneak Attack feature. Making a target Flat-Footed is most often done in combat by flanking them, and if you're going to make that a frequent tactic you should consider taking the Rogue multiclass dedication feats to get Sneak Attack.
When advancing your cat, Nimble and Savage are both good options. If you go for Nimble, your cat's AC will be higher without relying on barding, and its attacks will be more accurate because the Cat's Dexterity Modifier starts high and all of its attacks have the Finesse trait. When your cat specializes, consider Ambusher to capitalize on your cat's high Dexterity and to make Cat Pounce more viable. You may also consider Daredevil to help keep your cat alive, or Wrecker to improve its damage output.
If you choose to make your cat Savage, expect to rely on Barding, and expect Stealth to not be a go-to tactic. Savage cats will have higher damage per hit, but their attack bonus will be slightly lower because their Strength Modifier starts lower than their Dexterity modifier. When your cat specializes, consider Bully and Wrecker to boost its damage output further.
This can be complicated to set up, but it's very helpful if you have other allies in the party who rely on Strikes. You need to Command your Animal Companion, then they spent an Action to take the Support action to activate their Support Benefit. Then, you (and it must be you) must successfully Strike a creature adjacent to your cat. After you do so, the target is Flat-Footed until the end of your next turn. So you get the remainder of your turn (likely having spent two Actions already) and your whole next turn to enjoy the benefit, and your allies will get their full turns to enjoy the benefits too. You can reset the timer by repeatedly using the Support Benefit, keeping one or more creatures Flat-Footed for as long as you can continue to Strike them successfully.
A great way to start a fight, but not significant enough to alter your tactics in any significant way.
If there is a perfect Animal Companion for the Rogue, it's the Dromaeosaur. The Dromaeosaur's Support Benefit makes it exceptionally easy to flank enemies, which is a helpful benefit for any melee character, but an absolutely crucial tactic for melee rogues. Even if you never advance the Dromaeosaur beyond Young, its Support Benefit is still fantastic, and with high Dexterity and decent hit points the Dromaeosaur can serve as a flanking partner with little further investment. With 50 ft. speed the Dromaeosaur is a tempting mount at least until you get into melee range, at which point you can dismount and move into position to flank your target.
Because they both capitalize on flanking, the Cat and the Dromaeosaur compete for a specific niche as a flanking partner so it's helpful to compare the two when considering getting an Animal Companion. The Cat deals better damage on its own due to the additional d4 damage it deals againt flat-footed targets, and with Cat Pounce the Cat is clearly more capable of standing on its own as a Striker. By comparison, the Dromaeosaur has more hit points and better speed, but the only especially interesting thing it can do is to flank things. If you only care about flanking, the Dromaeosaur is the way to go. If you want a companion that's going to be a threat even when you're not focusing on the same target, go for the Cat.
When advancing your Dromaeosaur, make it Nimble unless you're a Medium character and want to ride it, in which case you'll need to make it Savage to increase its size to Large. The Dromaeosaur's primary role is to help you flank, and its attacks are secondary, so don't worry about them too much. When your companion specializes, consider Daredevil to help keep it alive in combat.
If you're going to use this, make sure that the benefits of making the target Flat-footed outweigh the potential extra damage which your companion could deal since your companion gives up its ability to do anything except move in a turn in which it uses its Support Benefit.
Stepping 10 feet is great for your companion to get into position to flank with you or one of your allies. Combined with its Support Benefit, the Dromaeosaur can place itself to flank with one of your allies, then on subsequent turns it can use its Support Benefit to flank with you without leaving its current advantageous position. This also helps to get your companion out of enemy reach if a fight isn't going well for it.
Horses are the only published Animal Companion type with the Mount trait, which means that they're the only companion which you can ride without giving up your companion's Support Benefit.
Unfortunately, while the Horse excels in its purpose as a mount, other options can do just as well if you don't need the Horse's specific Support Action and Advanced Maneuver. For example: the Dromaeosaur is faster, which is a big advantage since speed is the most important reason to use a mount. That said, There are a handful of reasons to use the Horse over other options, so consider the Horse if you meet any of the following criteria:
- You plan to use a Lance and perform mounted charges
- You can't wait for your mount's size to increase so that you can ride it
- You need a mount but can't invest more than one feat to get it
- You are taking multiclass archetype feats solely to get a mount
- You plan to give your mount additional movement types (typically via spells or magic items)
For characters whose class doesn't grant access to an Animal Companion, multiclassing to get access is a great idea for mounted combat builds. The Horse companion's Support Benefit and Advanced Maneuver are both very useful, and the numeric benefits of an Animal Companion over a regular horse make it much easier to keep your horse alive in combat. Even if your horse never advances beyond Young, it will still have significantly more hit points than a regular horse, and the Support Benefit is a significant damage boost for a mounted melee build.
When advancing your horse, I recommend making it Nimble. Nimble will give it a higher total AC without needing to invest in expensive magic barding, and you likely don't care enough about your horse's attacks enough to need more Strength. When your companion specializes, consider Daredevil and Racer. Daredevil will help keep your horse alive as it races around in combat, while Racer will give it some extra hit points and improves its speed. Not that Racer provides a Status bonus, while Gallop provides a Circumstances bonus, so the two stack.
To activate this, you're probably going to spend your first Action to Command your companion to move toward your target and use this benefit (taking both of your companion's actions). Once you're in reach, make a Strike. If your melee weapon didn't already have Jousting, it gains and equivalent damage bonus. If your weapon does have Jousting (currently only Lances have the Jousting trait), it increases the damage bonus by 2 per damage die of the weapon. Not "to 2 per damage die", but "by 2 per damage die". This fully triples the damage bonus from Jousting.
If all you're going to do on a turn is move, this is great. Most humanoids have a land speed of 25 ft., so increasing your horse's speed from 40 ft. to 50 ft. temporarily means that you can easily outrun many enemies.
Snakes have the highest total Strength and Dexterity modifiers, which may be its most interesting trait. The Snake's attacks have the Finesse trait even though the Snake's Dexterity is as good as its initial Strength, so you're free to pursue Strength- or Dexterity-based builds.
Snakes have land, swim, and climb speeds, allowing them to function nearly anywhere. The Snake's biggest problem is that nothing it does is especially interesting.
When advancing your snake, make it a Savage Companion if for no other reason than the size increase, which is absolutely critical for the Snake's Advanced Maneuver. When your companion specializes, start with either Bully or Wrecker to bring your companion's Athletics proficiency to Master so that it can successfully keep foes grappled. Also consider Ambusher to improve your Snake's initiative, Stealth, and AC, and Daredevil to help keep it alive in combat.
Very situational. With some rare exceptions (like enemies with long reach), you can take the Step action to move far enough away to avoid Reactions from enemies. Commanding your companion and taking a Step both take a single Action, but if you Step you can still command your companion to do something else. Step also doesn't require your companion to be close enough to move adjacent to the target.
If you opt for the Savage Companion option, your snake will reach a maximum size of Large. Theat allows it to target medium or smaller creatures. By the time that your companion can become Nimble or savage, you're facing a lot of creatures of Large or greater size, so your snake's most interesting option isn't always applicable. On top of that, the Snake doesn't get any special way to start a grapple.
In the situations where Constrict applies, it's a nice option. 12 flat damage is decent for a single Action, especially since you don't need to make a check to deal the damage. Your companion can also perform the action as often as it likes, potentially dealing the damage repeatedly on their turn.
The wolf is the least mechanically interesting type of Animal Companion. Its Support benefit and Advanced Manuever both make it difficult for enemies to get around, but the Wolf's attacks aren't especially interesting. It's no tougher than other companions, and its damage is no better. It doesn't have a second natural weapon with the Agile trait, so it's less effective at standing still and repeatedly attacking than other companions. Perhaps the Wolf's greatest strength is that it's low-maintenance. You point it at something, tell it to attack, and unless you want to use one of its special abilities you really don't need to do so. In many ways it's a longsword with legs. If you just need an easy, low-effort Animal Companion (great for new players), the Wolf is a fine choice. But if you have a specific job in mind for your companion beyond dealing and taking damage, look elsewhere.
When advancing your wolf, make it Savage. Even though its bite attack has the Finesse trait, you want the additional damage from Savage since that is your wolf's primary function. Expect your wolf to live in Barding. When your companion specializes, consider Bully and Wrecker to improve its Strength. If you're using your wolf for tracking you could consider Tracker, but in my experience tracking is a rarity in most fantasy campaigns, and you can usually handle it by other means.
Situational. Remember that typed penalties don't stack with penalties of the same type, just as bonuses don't stack with bonuses of the same type, so you can't stack this effect to immobilize foes.
Tripping enemies is really good. They become Flat-footed, they suffer a penalty to attack rolls, and their ability to move is limited severely. Standing costs an Action, and trading one of your wolf's actions for one of the target's Actions will be a good trade in most encounters.