The present study was conducted to test the hypothesis that low concentrations of coated ZnO, as a substitute for a high concentration of ZnO (2250 mg Zn/kg), could improve intestinal immunity function and regulate microbiota composition, thus alleviating the incidence of diarrhoea in weaned piglets. A total of eighty-four cross-bred piglets, weaned at an age of 28 (sem 1) d, were allocated randomly, on the basis of average initial body weight (7·72 (sem 0·65) kg), to seven treatment groups as follows: a 250 mg Zn (ZnO)/kg group (low Zn; LZ) and a 2250 mg Zn (ZnO)/kg group (high Zn; HZ) that were offered diets containing ZnO at 250 and 2250 mg Zn/kg, respectively; and five experimental groups in which coated ZnO was added at 250, 380, 570, 760 and 1140 mg Zn/kg basal diet, respectively. The trial lasted 2 weeks. The results indicated that, compared with LZ treatment, supplementation with coated ZnO at 380 or 570 mg Zn/kg reduced (P< 0·05) diarrhoea index, increased (P< 0·05) duodenal villus height and the ratio of villus height:crypt depth, up-regulated (P< 0·05) the gene expression of insulin-like growth factor 1, zonula occludens protein-1, occludin, IL-10 and transforming growth factor β1, and elevated (P< 0·05) secretory IgA concentration in the jejunal mucosa. Microbiota richness and the Shannon diversity index were also decreased (P< 0·05). Furthermore, piglets in the group fed coated ZnO at 380 or 570 mg Zn/kg did not differ from those in the HZ-fed group in relation to the aforementioned parameters. Collectively, a low concentration of coated ZnO (380 or 570 mg Zn/kg) can alleviate the incidence of diarrhoea by promoting intestinal development, protecting the intestinal mucosal barrier from damage, stimulating the mucosal immune system and regulating the microbiota composition.