Malnutrition is distributed widely throughout the world and is a particular problem in developing countries. Laboratory animals have been very useful in studying the effects of varying levels of malnutrition because non-nutritional factors that affect humans may be controlled. The objective of the present study was to determine the effects of moderate and severe malnutrition on lymphocyte proportions and activation markers of T cells in experimentally malnourished rats during lactation by flow cytometry. Lower absolute (total) and relative (%) numbers of CD3+ and CD4+ lymphocyte subpopulations were observed in moderately (second degree) and severely (third degree) malnourished rats compared with well-nourished rats (P < 0·05). Both groups of malnourished rats showed a significant decrease in the percentage of CD71+ cells at 24 h post-activation with phytohaemagglutinin (PHA). After 24 h activation of spleen cells with PHA, a lower percentage of CD25+ cells was observed in malnourished than well-nourished rats (P < 0·05). In conclusion, the results of this study indicated an altered expression of CD71 and CD25 during activation of T lymphocytes in malnourished rats and may partially explain increased susceptibility to infection associated with malnutrition. Moreover, these results demonstrated that moderate malnutrition affects the response of T lymphocytes as much as severe malnutrition.