We investigated the effects of dietary l-arginine level and feeding duration on the intestinal damage of broilers induced by Clostridium perfringens (CP) in vivo, and the antimicrobial effect of its metabolite nitric oxide (NO) in vitro. The in vivo experiment was designed as a factorial arrangement of three dietary treatments×two challenge statuses. Broilers were fed a basal diet (CON) or a high-arginine diet (ARG) containing 1·87 % l-arginine, or CON for the first 8 d and ARG from days 9 to 28 (CON/ARG). Birds were co-infected with or without Eimeria and CP (EM/CP). EM/CP challenge led to intestinal injury, as evidenced by lower plasma d-xylose concentration (P<0·01), higher paracellular permeability in the ileum (P<0·05) and higher numbers of Escherichia coli (P<0·05) and CP (P<0·001) in caecal digesta; however, this situation could be alleviated by l-arginine supplementation (P<0·05). The intestinal claudin-1 and occludin mRNA expression levels were decreased (P<0·05) following EM/CP challenge; this was reversed by l-arginine supplementation (P<0·05). Moreover, EM/CP challenge up-regulated (P<0·05) claudin-2, interferon-γ (IFN-γ), toll-like receptor 2 and nucleotide-binding oligomerisation domain 1 (NOD1) mRNA expression, and l-arginine supplementation elevated (P<0·05) IFN-γ, IL-10 and NOD1 mRNA expression. In vitro study showed that NO had bacteriostatic activity against CP (P<0·001). In conclusion, l-arginine supplementation could inhibit CP overgrowth and alleviate intestinal mucosal injury by modulating innate immune responses, enhancing barrier function and producing NO.