In Huntington's disease, as in other neurodegenerative diseases, it was initially thought that insoluble protein aggregates are the toxic species. However, growing evidence implicates soluble oligomeric polyglutamine-expanded huntingtin in cytotoxicity. Here we show that pathogenic huntingtin inhibits endoplasmic reticulum (ER)-associated degradation and induces ER stress before its aggregation into visible inclusions. All three branches of the unfolded protein response are activated. ER stress can be compensated by overexpression of p97/VCP, suggesting its sequestration by pathogenic huntingtin as a main cause. Stress correlates with the presence of huntingtin oligomers and is independent of continual huntingtin synthesis. Stress levels, measured in striatal neurons, are stabilized but only slowly subside on huntingtin aggregation into inclusions. Our results can be explained by the constant conversion of huntingtin monomers to toxic oligomers; large aggregates sequester the former, precluding further conversion, whereas pre-existing toxic oligomers are only gradually depleted.