The present study investigated the effects of xanthophylls (containing 40 % of lutein and 60 % of zeaxanthin) on proinflammatory cytokine (IL-1β, IL-6, interferon (IFN)-γ and lipopolysaccharide-induced TNF-α factor (LITAF)) and anti-inflammatory cytokine (IL-4 and IL-10) expression of breeding hens and chicks. In Expt 1, a total of 432 hens were fed diets supplemented with 0 (as the control group), 20 or 40 mg/kg xanthophylls (six replicates per treatment). The liver, duodenum, jejunum and ileum were sampled at 35 d of the trial. The results showed that both levels of xanthophyll addition decreased IL-1β mRNA in the liver and jejunum, IL-6 mRNA in the liver, IFN-γ mRNA in the jejunum and LITAF mRNA in the liver compared to the control group. Expt 2 was a 2 × 2 factorial design. Male chicks hatched from 0 or 40 mg/kg xanthophyll diet of hens were fed a diet containing either 0 or 40 mg/kg xanthophylls. The liver, duodenum, jejunum and ileum were collected at 0, 7, 14 and 21 d after hatching. The results showed that in ovo xanthophylls decreased proinflammatory cytokine expression (IL-1β, IL-6, IFN-γ and LITAF) in the liver, duodenum, jejunum and ileum and increased anti-inflammatory cytokine expression (IL-4 and IL-10) in the liver, jejunum and ileum mainly at 0–7 d after hatching. In ovo effects gradually vanished and dietary effects began to work during 1–2 weeks after hatching. Dietary xanthophylls modulated proinflammatory cytokines (IL-1β, IL-6 and IFN-γ) in the liver, duodenum, jejunum and ileum and anti-inflammatory cytokine (IL-10) in the liver and jejunum mainly from 2 weeks onwards. In conclusion, xanthophylls could regulate proinflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokine expression in different tissues of hens and chicks.