Focal cerebral cortical infarction causes secondary neurodegeneration in the remote regions, such as the ventroposterior nucleus of the thalamus. Retrograde degeneration of thalamocortical fibers is considered as the principle mechanism, but the exact molecular events remain to be elucidated. This study aimed to investigate whether unfolded protein response (UPR) is activated in thalamic neurons following distal middle cerebral artery occlusion (MCAO) in stroke‐prone renovascular hypertensive rats. Immunostaining and immunoblotting were performed to evaluate the expression of Grp78 and its downstream effectors in the thalamus at 3, 7 and 14 days after MCAO. Secondary thalamic degeneration was assessed with Nissl staining and NeuN immunostaining. Neuronal death was not apparent at 3 days post‐ischaemia but was evident in the thalamus at 7 and 14 days after MCAO. Grp78 level was reduced in the ipsilateral thalamus at 3 and 7 days after MCAO. In parallel, phosphorylated eIF2α and ATF4 levels were elevated, indicating the activation of UPR. In contrast, ATF6α and CHOP levels were not changed. These results suggest that UPR is activated before neuronal death in the ipsilateral thalamus after MCAO and may represent a key early event in the secondary thalamic degeneration.