Whey protein concentrate (WPC) has been reported to have protective effects on the intestinal barrier. However, the molecular mechanisms involved are not fully elucidated. Transforming growth factor-β1 (TGF-β1) is an important component in the WPC, but whether TGF-β1 plays a role in these processes is not clear. The aim of this study was to investigate the protective effects of WPC on the intestinal epithelial barrier as well as whether TGF-β1 is involved in these protection processes in a piglet model after lipopolysaccharide (LPS) challenge. In total, eighteen weanling pigs were randomly allocated to one of the following three treatment groups: (1) non-challenged control and control diet; (2) LPS-challenged control and control diet; (3) LPS+5 %WPC diet. After 19 d of feeding with control or 5 %WPC diets, pigs were injected with LPS or saline. At 4 h after injection, pigs were killed to harvest jejunal samples. The results showed that WPC improved (P<0·05) intestinal morphology, as indicated by greater villus height and villus height:crypt depth ratio, and intestinal barrier function, which was reflected by increased transepithelial electrical resistance and decreased mucosal-to-serosal paracellular flux of dextran (4 kDa), compared with the LPS group. Moreover, WPC prevented the LPS-induced decrease (P<0·05) in claudin-1, occludin and zonula occludens-1 expressions in the jejunal mucosae. WPC also attenuated intestinal inflammation, indicated by decreased (P<0·05) mRNA expressions of TNF-α, IL-6, IL-8 and IL-1β. Supplementation with WPC also increased (P<0·05) TGF-β1 protein, phosphorylated-Smad2 expression and Smad4 and Smad7 mRNA expressions and decreased (P<0·05) the ratios of the phosphorylated to total c-jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) and p38 (phospho-JNK:JNK and p-p38:p38), whereas it increased (P<0·05) the ratio of extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) (phospho-ERK:ERK). Collectively, these results suggest that dietary inclusion of WPC attenuates the LPS-induced intestinal injury by improving mucosal barrier function, alleviating intestinal inflammation and influencing TGF-β1 canonical Smad and mitogen-activated protein kinase signalling pathways.