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The young of cats are called kittens or cubs, depending partly on how large the cat is, and apparently partly on informal custom. Wikipedia, kitten says:

The word "kitten" derives from the Middle English word kitoun, which in turn came from the Old French chitoun or cheton. Juvenile big cats are called "cubs" rather than kittens; either term may be used for the young of smaller wild felids, such as ocelots, caracals and lynx, but "kitten" is usually more common for these species.

So far, clear. But take a look at the name for the young of cougars.

The young of mountain lions are often called kittens. This seems an odd choice for the young of such a large cat. Wikipedia says:

Cougars are the largest of the small cats. They are placed in the subfamily Felinae, although their bulk characteristics are similar to those of the big cats in the subfamily Pantherinae.

Cougar: The American Lion, a publication of the Mountain Lion Foundation says:

Newborn mountain lions enter the world as buff brown balls of fur weighing slightly more than a pound. Biologists call them kittens or cubs either is correct.

This article then proceeds to call them kittens throughout.

Sciencing calls them cubs.

Is there a scientific basis for choosing kittens over cubs, or vice versa, for the young of cats? The extremes are clear: a baby tiger is a cub; a baby domestic cat is a kitten. But in the middle -- is there a scientific rule or just personal preference?

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    Your Wikipedia quote (Cougars are the largest of the small cats) comes within a whisker of answering the question on its own – Chris H Apr 28 '18 at 7:10
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It depends on whether the cat is a member of the Panthera (cubs) or Felinae (kittens). This

Panthera is the big cats,

The British taxonomist Pocock revised the classification of this genus in 1916 as comprising the species lion, tiger, jaguar, and leopard on the basis of cranial features. Results of genetic analysis indicate that the snow leopard also belongs to the Panthera, a classification that was accepted by IUCN assessors in 2008.4

Source

and Felinae is basically everything else. A not quite complete description is that Panthera cats roar while Felinae cats purr, but that not entirely accurate as the snow leopard is unable to roar.

In big cats- - lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars- - a length of tough cartilage runs up the hyoid bones to the skull. This feature prevents purring but also gives the larynx enough flexibility to produce a full- throated roar- - 114 decibels' worth in the case of one lion tested. The sound can be loud enough to be near a human's pain threshold. Purring ability, rather than size or behavior, is one of two chief distinctions between the two main genera of cat, Felis and Panthera. (The other difference is that the eyes of the former have pupils that narrow to vertical slits.) These genera are sometimes called "the purring cats" and "the roaring cats," respectively, although among the latter only the lion roars habitually.

Source

According to Wikipedia, cubs refers to the offspring of the big cats, while either can be used for the offspring of the purring cats, but kittens are more commonly used.

As for why it is not consistent, I would just like to point out how people use both Canada and Canadian Geese.

  • That bit about purring is not entirely accurate--even big cats make a purring sound when happy , have seen video of such . – Paul Esterguard Feb 23 at 12:51
  • Welcome to TGO! Thanks for your answer! In our system sometimes shorter answers get deleted, so we'll ask for more information. If this is downvoted or suddenly gone, please don't take it personally, and please don't leave. Our help center, and answer, will guide you. Please leave a comment with any questions about how we do things! Your contributions are important to us! – Sue Saddest Farewell TGO GL Feb 23 at 23:38
  • Paul, can you give us a link to a video that you saw, and quote some of the text from it? That way we can all learn from what you learned! Thanks! – Sue Saddest Farewell TGO GL Feb 23 at 23:40
  • See The Wildcat Sanctuary, which states that among the big cats, only cheetahs are capable of purring. The cougar, despite its size is classified among the small cats and can purr. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Feb 24 at 14:47
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    OOPS! According to Science Alert the question is not totally resolved. Some big cats can produce a noise that closely resembles a purr, but is not a "true purr", which depends on the rigidity of the hyoid bone. More research is (of course) needed. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Feb 24 at 14:57

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